Cougar phenomenon is alive and well whether there's big cats or not
Poppycock or puma? It's the story that refuses to die.
Wildlife officials have varying names for the phenomenon: "puma paranoia," "mountain lion mania" or "cougar hysteria."
Urban myth or real threat? Cougar sightings - and cougar hoaxes - are everywhere. They've proliferated through the Internet and Photoshop technology. Ordinary housecats have been made to look like menacing 200-pound flesh-eating felines.
In one humorous case a hefty black-and-white cat was reported to be a public threat to livestock, poultry and humans. It looked nothing like a cougar, but that didn't stop a frenzy of conspiracy theorists from making it the puma poster kitty, submitting it to dozens of Web sites.
"Minnesota is not unique," said Mark Dowling of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit organization that studies cougar-habitat relationships and the role of cougars in ecosystems. The Network tracks documented sightings of the big cats.
"The puma paranoia is in every state east of established cougar range," Dowling said.
That established range is generally in the western United States, but cougars, also known as mountain lions, also known as pumas, have been found east of the Rockies, especially in western North Dakota, which has a cougar hunting season, and South Dakota, where cougars have ventured out of the Black Hills into more populated areas.
"People WANT to think they've seen cougars," Dowling said, "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of it is pure BS."
Cougar reports have increased around Hubbard County since thousands of deer hunters trekked through the forests last month. Many called the Enterprise to report sightings. None called the DNR.
"We have found sighting reports from the general public to be completely unreliable," Dowling said. "The very few cougars that do show up in Minnesota can be attributed to transients from the west or escaped captives. We regularly get pictures of housecats that people insist are cougars."
Biologist Steve Loch of Babbitt also follows cougar sightings.
"To some extent this baffles me, too," he said of the rumors that refuse to die. "However, I've been exposed to so much of it that I'm beginning to understand at least parts of it. Much of it is misidentification - wolves, deer, bobcats, lynx, et al... But there's far more to it than just sloppy identification."
Loch mentioned four separate cases that fueled the cougar rumors throughout Minnesota. He tracks the hundreds and thousands of Web hits each story get.
He even tracks when reputable media outlets pick up on the hysteria.
"A horse injures itself and the horse owner and her friends transform it into a cougar attack, and it becomes a multiple media event," he said of the Milaca case. "That just shouldn't be."
The Milaca incident involved a horse that became entangled in a barbed wire fence. It took on mythic proportions. The horse was significantly injured when a portion of the steel fence got jammed into the animal's abdomen as the horse apparently struggled to free itself. Gory pictures appeared in the media, which wildlife officials also blame for spreading the hysteria, rehashing urban myths and allowing them to build momentum.
"Lately it seems that about every other time a horse injures itself in Minnesota a reporter is likely to run a story pinning that injury on an imaginary cougar," Loch said.
And the more the DNR tries to debunk the stories, the more it fires up conspiracy theorists. Conservation departments in Iowa and Missouri even mounted public information campaigns recently to calm public hysteria when urban myths had big cats attacking animal and children.
"Being worried about a cougar attack in Milaca is like being worried about a shark attack in the Mississippi River," the Mille Lacs County Times quoted DNR officer Dave Schottenbauer saying.
Schottenbauer tried unsuccessfully to denounce rumors the DNR released a pack of cougars to control the deer population. The words had no sooner escaped his lips denying the rumors, than Web sites sprang up using the sensational photos with cutlines screaming, "Cougar attacks!" and "Cougars on the loose!"
Central Minnesota residents reacted viscerally when two Fergus Falls horses were separately mauled by something last month. The veterinarian who examined the animals couldn't confirm that it was a cougar, especially since no viable cougar population has ever been found to exist in the state.
But the vet did indicate she thought, because of the claw marks, that a large cat had inflicted the wounds.
Then there was the much-publicized story of a cougar being shot in a Chicago suburb last spring. Wildlife officials had traced the cat's journey through Wisconsin.
"This was the first wild cougar documented and verified in Wisconsin in more than 100 years," Loch said.
But that was followed this fall by a story indicating hunters had allegedly chased two cougars off a deer shot near Culver this fall.
"It is unusual and most of the time when... if we're able to find any evidence, many times it's likely a sighting, a deer and dog or bobcats," said DNR area wildlife supervisor Rob Naplin.
"Bobcats are the news that really added fuel to the fire because we have a pretty healthy bobcat population," Naplin said. "People, if they just see a glimpse of them, I don't know what it is, they automatically think cougar."
Naplin is as perplexed by the phenomenon as the other wildlife experts, especially in the absence of physical confirmation such as hair, teeth, scat or a corpus delecti.
"To my knowledge we don't have any breeding populations of cougars and certainly some of the sightings can be attributed to what we'd call our 'outed' cougars, or ones that have been captive animals that have either escaped or managed to get into the wild," he said.
"I think people want to believe that they're here so it's pretty easy for people to have their imaginations stretched."'
Thirty-three cougars are registered in the state, five as pets and 28 under DNR game farm licenses.
"Keep in mind this number may not be accurate," said Minnesota Board of Animal Health technician Betsy Lempelius. "The regulated animal laws are not enforced by our agency." If animal control authorities or big cat owners do not report cougars the Board wouldn't necessarily know about their existence.
DNR furbearer specialist Jason Abraham doesn't know what to make of the phenomenon. "Just taking the Cougar Network's confirmations at face value, I believe there are only 6 since 1991.
"It's a relatively low number and we get 50 to 100 sightings reported every year," he said. "Obviously some of these are cases of mistaken identity. But there are a lot of caveats when you talk about cougars."