The Ghost Cat

ghostcat-2_med_hrIt was early autumn, 1968, and a teenaged Dave Anderson was booting along a gravel road in a light-green Dodge half-ton pickup with his brother Richard. They were in the northwestern corner of the province, north of Kenora, on the way to a family trap line, when they saw something they weren’t supposed to see, must not have seen, and would be foolhardy for them ever to admit they had seen.

“It looked like a white-tailed deer lying at the side of the road,” Anderson recalls. “Then it got up, and I saw the tail.”

There is no creature on this continent with an appendage quite like the luxuriant, ropy tail that distinguishes Puma concolor couguar from any other wild cat, never mind from a deer. Nevertheless, wildlife biologists long maintained that cougars did not exist in eastern North America. The Anderson boys had just joined a fairly exclusive club of anecdotal eyewitnesses. It was a also club generally thought of as a haven for the nearsighted, the naïve and the delusional.

This story appeared in the Winter 2006/07 issue of ON Nature.

When Dave Anderson informed the local office of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) of his encounter, he received, as he puts it, a “ha-ha” response. “There was a time that if you reported a cougar, it was like you reported a flying saucer,” he says. You were just this side of saying Bigfoot stole your truck.

Ontario trappers like the Andersons had been offering anecdotal reports of cougar sightings since at least the 1930s. And there had been sporadic reports of sightings in the province’s wilds west of Thunder Bay since the 1950s. Three years after the Andersons’ encounter, an animal whose very existence anywhere in Ontario had long been doubtful was formally proclaimed in 1971 (with almost endearing bureaucratic optimism) to be “endangered” in the province and protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Act’s seeming acceptance that the cougar existed somehow, somewhere in the province gave heart to those who were sure they had seen one, or were prepared to believe those who said they had. Dave Anderson remained a true believer, and the MNR in the northwest corner of the province is no longer laughing at reports of cougar sightings. Cougar believers now have an inside man. Anderson began working for MNR in 1975, and today is the district enforcement supervisor, based at Red Lake, 90 kilometres north of Kenora. Moreover, his family was central in at last securing proof that there are real live cougars in Ontario.

In March 1998, Ralph Anderson, another trapper brother of Dave’s, discovered enticing evidence at a line he operated northeast of Silver Lake, about 15 kilometres northeast of Kenora. Ralph had discovered fresh tracks in the snow, accompanied by “bop” marks made by an animal’s tail, which could not have been made by a bob-tailed lynx, the animal whose tracks are most readily confused with those of a cougar.

Ralph excitedly phoned his sister, Lil, a technician at MNR, who runs a rehabilitation centre for raptors and owls in Kenora with her husband. She came out a few days later with Rob Moorley, a lands and waters technical specialist with MNR’s Kenora district. There were lynx tracks on the way to the site, and it seemed easy to distinguish between their fuzzy, “powder-puff” edges, made by tufts of fur around the paw, and the crisp, well-preserved prints at Ralph Anderson’s find. They also discovered fresh tracks, which appeared to be only hours old. They followed the imprints a distance, watching the feet dip into a creek and the edge of a lake, something a lynx would never do. Then they reached the evidentiary mother load: a fresh—still soft, unfrozen—deposit of scat.

Lil Anderson scooped the poop into a baggie and sent a sample to Tom Packer, a forensic biologist at Alberta Fish & Wildlife in Edmonton. Photos of the tracks were forwarded to seven cat experts who happened to be in Canmore, Alberta for the biennial meeting of the Western Forest Carnivore Committee, an informal assembly of wildlife and environmental professionals from Canada and the U.S. who gather to discuss issues related to animals like the cougar, marten, lynx and bobcat.

Packer employed thin layer chromatography, a fairly simple and inexpensive chemical analysis, to find signature bile salts that can be used to distinguish between species. On November 9, Lil Anderson finally received her answer from Packer: “The bile salts contained in the scat are characteristic of cougar…and inconsistent with lynx.” Furthermore, the track analysis, which provoked much debate at Canmore, had come down in favour of cougar as well, being “consistent” with the animal indicated by the bile analysis. It was as official. There were cougars in Ontario.

• • •

This strikingly handsome and powerful animal — the males can exceed 100 kilos (more than 200 pounds) — is the most successful land predator of the Western Hemisphere, as well as its most successful mammal species. No other one has flourished in North, South and Central America. Its historical range spanned many ecosystems, from Canada’s boreal forests to the desert buttes of the American southwest to the pampas of Chile and Patagonia in the south. A solitary animal, it mainly hunts midsize prey like deer, antelope and sheep. Recent tracking studies in the western U.S. employing GPS transmitters have revealed that individual animals can wander hundreds of kilometres at a time in search of game.

But the cougar has paid dearly for its success, having been aggressively hunted wherever agriculture spread. By the 1930s, the cougar was believed eradicated from eastern North America, insofar as it could be said that no one shot or trapped them any more.

Over time, the big cat has accumulated many local names: cougar, puma, panther, painted lion (“painter”), mountain lion, catamount, and the evocative ghost cat, to name a few. In the late eighteenth century, two different species names were given to the animals within that broad geographic population: Felis concolor and Puma concolor. (Concolor means “of a uniform colour,” even though the cougar isn’t, really.) It was only in the 1990s that wildlife biologists agreed to remove the animal from the genus Felis, home to “small” cats ranging from the domestic housecat to the ocelot and settle on Puma concolor. But already, by the early twentieth century, the animal had accumulated thirty-two subspecies classifications in North, Central and South America—including the eastern cougar, the historic cat in Ontario, which, by then, wildlife biologists considered extinct.

Scientists are still trying to agree on what a “cougar” even is. In 1999, Melanie Culver, now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, caused a stir with her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland, which was expanded into a paper landmark paper with two coauthors in 2000. Culver’s DNA analysis of 315 specimen samples indicated there was only one subspecies for all of North America. Culver argued that the subspecies name for the eastern cougar, Puma concolor couguar, should apply to the entire population north of Nicaragua. For Professor Culver, not only is there no such thing as an eastern cougar, there’s no so such thing as a “cougar.” The animal is a puma, as it is most commonly known in South America.

Whatever you wish to call the cougar, there is growing evidence that the animal is back in eastern North America—a remarkable change, given that when Culver did her DNA analysis, the only samples she could gather for the “eastern cougar” were from museum collections in the U.S. Even today, Lil Anderson’s scat sample is the only confirmed physical evidence of a cougar in Ontario. In the United States the status of the cougar has become a deeply politicized debate. It has embroiled state wildlife officials, nonprofit conservancies and amateur cryptozoologists in, at times, a venal war of words.

In the eastern U.S., people undeniably have been photographing cougars, finding them dead at the side of the road (or hitting them with their cars), or shooting them. The elusive beast might never have left this side of the continent, having survived in remote areas in relic populations. Surviving populations in the west could also be moving in. But many of these examples have either proven to be, or are said by wildlife professionals to be, “exotic” in origin. That is to say, the animals are of captive breeding stock: escaped pets whose bloodlines (and evidentiary DNA) originate in South America.

Captive-bred cougars are at the heart of much of the controversy over the animal’s presence in eastern North America. Incontrovertible photographic evidence—and there’s still no such thing in Ontario—cannot prove that an animal is truly wild.

North America is positively teeming with captive “big” (lions and tigers) and “lesser” (cougars, panthers and the like) cats held in private collections and unregulated roadside zoos. Time and again, a South American genetic signature has indicated that a cougar is not of native stock. In May 1992, for example, a male cougar shot at Lake Abitibi in northern Quebec, 470 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, seemed to prove that a relic population had survived deep in the boreal forest of Shield country. But when a curator at the Canadian Museum of Nature learned of Melanie Culver’s groundbreaking DNA analysis and sent her a sliver of its preserved flesh in 2000, Chilean genetic markers turned up.

While no DNA analysis was conducted on Lil Anderson’s scat find at Silver Lake, the cougars encountered in northwestern Ontario, at least, are probably genuine wild stock. For one thing, researchers are aware of wild populations in neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota.

“Around Red Lake, we get six to ten sightings per year,” says Dave Anderson. “It seems as if, since the deer population started to move north in 1987, there’s been an increase in the number of sightings. Some of our sightings are iffy, and you don’t know if a person saw a lynx, but some people definitely saw a cougar, plain and simple. One lady, a local justice of the peace, walked right up to one, before it ran off. When we get a sighting, we usually have four or five reports in a general area, and then they move on. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re cougars, and that they’re wild cougars. We’re at the same latitude as where they’re spotting them in Manitoba.”

In the vicinity of Kenora and Red Lake, these cougars may represent a relic population, or are animals expanding territory from Manitoba or Minnesota. Whether or not the animals believed to have attacked people and horses in more populous southern Ontario are cougars as well, however, is an entirely different matter. Horse breeder Reta Regelink is convinced that a cougar killed her yearling buckskin filly in a pasture near Orillia in August 2005. The attack occurred about 25 kilometres northeast of Creemore, where the last known cougar in Ontario was supposed to have been shot dead in 1884.

• • •

Big Curve Acres Farm, which Reta Regelink runs with her husband Henry, is a substantial horse breeding operation. One of its studs is a son of the celebrated thoroughbred Secretariat, and the Regelinks also raise rare historic farm animals. The main farm is on the edge of Highway 11, between Barrie and Orillia in the township of Oro-Medonte. They also have an 80-hectare pasture in the area, and had moved the young buckskin filly to this field after purchasing her in June 2005.

“With the colour and size of her, she was just like a deer, really,” says Reta Regelink. She was new to the herd, and something of a straggler, and in a stifling August heat wave the small, tawny filly sought refuge in the shade of a stand of cedars. Which was where her corpse was discovered.

“It was a classic on-the-neck bite, with the shoulder chewed out,” Regelink says. “And there were hand-sized cat paw prints around.”

Such an attack on a horse was not without precedent in Ontario. In the summer of 2002, something mauled a mare on a farm in South Stormont Township in eastern Ontario so badly that she had to be put down. When a farm animal dies this way, a livestock evaluator must write up the incident for insurance purposes, and to determine if the loss is eligible for compensation from the municipality or the province. Provincial law requires municipalities to pay farmers for animal losses caused by coyotes, wolves and dogs, or some crossbreed thereof. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs compensates farmers (and beekeepers) for losses due to bear predation. But there’s no statute that covers losses due to cougar attack.

South Stormont Township’s livestock evaluator had never seen anything like the football-sized wound in the mare’s neck, just above its front legs. Following what was reported to be the “hunch” of the owner, the evaluator wrote “cougar” as the cause of death on his official report. This was a year after a well-publicized incident in nearby Cornwall in the summer of 2001, when a teenager was bitten in the dead of night by what he claimed was a cougar after he went outside to find out why his brother’s dog was barking. Photographs of the puncture wounds in his forearm were sent to a Montana wildlife biologist and a wildlife enhancement specialist at the University of California at Davis, who both returned a verdict of “cougar” for the bite pattern.

The Regelinks followed protocol and brought in their township’s livestock evaluator to assess the loss. The evaluator in turn called Greg Cull, a fish and wildlife technical specialist at MNR’s Midhurst office. A township evaluator is required to file a report within ten days of an animal’s death, if compensation from the municipality is to be provided.

The evaluator had taken photos of the wounds, as well as the tracks, during his own investigation. Unfortunately, no scale had been included in the pictures. Even so, Cull sent the photographs to Stuart Kenn, an amateur enthusiast in Beeton, Ontario, who co-founded the Ontario Puma Foundation in 2002 to investigate cougar reports and gather evidence of his own. Don Sutherland, an MNR zoologist in Peterborough who maintains the ministry’s cougar-sighting database, calls Kenn “passionate” about cougars, and Kenn has developed a working relationship with ministry staff.

“Unfortunately,” says Kenn, “the photographer did not use a tape measure or other means of measurement in the photo and also obscured the posterior edge of the plantar pad with a leaf, eliminating a critical ID point on puma tracks.” But Kenn was fairly persuaded by the photo evidence of the wounds. “The horse was alone in the forest, and may have appeared like a deer to an inexperienced puma. The animal was killed right where it stood and there were bite marks on the back of the neck. Wolves and coyotes attack from the rear of an animal biting at the legs and hindquarters and the kill site is usually extensive and messy from the animal struggling to get away. The animals also eat from the hindquarters and move forward. Bears also make a big mess as they try to claw at their prey. A horse is too large for a lynx or bobcat. This only leaves one animal—the puma. The bite marks around the shoulder area are typical.”

But Greg Cull was not prepared to accept an unequivocal verdict of “cougar” based on the livestock evaluator’s photos. “There was inconclusive evidence: no detailed photos of bite marks, no measurements. There is always a possibility that it could have been a cougar. It might have been an escaped cougar, but we have no evidence to support any of that.”

In Ontario, whether alleged cougars are wild or exotic opens a can of regulatory worms. The fact that livestock losses won’t be compensated if death is attributed to a a cougar is just part of it, as Mike Draper, chief inspector of the OSPCA in Newmarket, learned the same year as the Regelink incident. The OSPCA was called to a home near Bolton, in the Caledon Hills, where they found a young cougar in a small dog crate in the basement. In exotic pet circles, Draper found what is referred to as a “basement cat,” an animal cruelly housed and almost certainly improperly nourished, in a private home.

Draper knew that native wild animals in Ontario can only be held in captivity with a permit from MNR. “We contacted MNR,” he recalls, “and they said there was no requirement for the man to have a permit.” The ministry, in other words, did not consider this captive cougar to be a native wild animal. And provincial law says exotic pets are for municipalities, not the MNR, to worry about.

The reticence of government agencies in eastern North America to accept marginal evidence (especially anecdotal) of the existence of wild cougars is understandable. But it is also suspected that some cash-strapped agencies are reluctant to acknowledge the existence of an endangered species with huge territorial requirements. Doing so would trigger expensive management plans, among other regulatory headaches, and could wreak havoc with approvals for development. Another concern may be legal liability, arising when families of attack victims at public parks sue the state for allegedly failing to properly monitor these predators and provide adequate safeguards to the public.

In Ontario, one can be forgiven for suspecting that the cougar is a political hot potato. If MNR admits that wild cougars exist in the south, it will have to implement recovery and management plans for an endangered species. The provincial government will also come under pressure to extend compensation for livestock kills to incidents that township evaluators categorize as “cougar.” At the same time, if livestock evaluators can call these cougar attacks the work of wild animals, then they are not a legal concern for the municipalities, which otherwise would be expected to regulate the possession of exotic cats.

Which naturally raises the question: is Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources being predictably cautious about recognizing wild cougars in the southern end of the province, or is the ministry determined that sightings remain as credible as flying saucers?

• • •

The OSPCA accepted MNR’s “exotic” verdict in the 2005 Bolton case and took in the cougar. Because there is no province-wide law restricting exotic pets, Ontario is believed to have one of the highest number of undocumented and unregulated owners of exotic cats in North America “We know there is a trade in cougars and other large cats in Ontario,” Draper explains. “We have more roadside zoos than anywhere else in Canada. There are no limitations on owning these cats, except under municipal laws.” And not all municipalities, Oro-Medonte among them, even have a law that prohibits exotic cats. “The last I was aware of,” Draper says, “it was $2000 for an adult cougar, but you can probably get them cheaper.” Indeed, harried owners will even give a basement cat away. Some will “return the animal to the wild,” leaving it to the locals to deal with the consequences.

While it’s plain that some of the cougars killed in eastern North America were escaped or deliberately released pets, it hardly means that all credible sightings have involved exotics. Most captive-bred cougars are declawed, and many are defanged, rendering them incapable of hunting for themselves. It is possible that the extensive wilds of the Appalachian range, home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (more than 2,000 square kilometres) might contain remnant historic populations. Upstate New York’s Adirondack Park—larger than the five largest U.S. national parks combined at more than 24,000 square kilometres— regularly produces cougar sightings. And as Dave Anderson says of his corner of Ontario, “Up in our part of the world, there’s a whole bunch of country.” Parts of Quebec and New Brunswick are also capable of sustaining wild populations. A hair sample collected by Parks Canada at Fundy National Park in 2003 was typed as cougar by the University of Montreal. And in 2005, Quebec’s Ministry for Natural Resources, Fauna and Parks confirmed the presence of cougars in the Saguenay-lac-Saint-Jean region, adding to previous confirmations in the Gaspésie-Iles-de-la-Madeleine and Capitale-Nationale regions.

Stuart Kenn has proposed that cougar numbers in southern Ontario have increased through interbreeding between relic populations and escaped exotics, although he has no hard evidence for this. But known cross-breeding by private collectors between native North American cats (generally kittens orphaned by hunters in the west, who turn them over to pet traders) and South American stock greatly complicates the gene-pool picture.

In more urbanized and intensively agricultural areas like southern Ontario, the idea of actual breeding populations, whatever the origins of the animals, might seem far-fetched. But the animal has proved to be more adaptable to human encroachment on wild lands than once thought. In Oregan, state wildlife officials have noted that cougars have found cornfields ideal cover for hunting deer. Nevertheless, it can be argued that, if cougars were here in sufficient numbers to represent a thriving population. ssurely by now at least one would have been hit by a car (or a train), as several have been in the eastern U.S.

• • •

“We’re talking about a highly cryptic animal,” the MNR’s Don Sutherland says of the cougar. “But I think it’s interesting that there’s been an increase in the number of reports. Some reports definitely seem highly credible. Some clearly pertain to cougar, and others do not. No one has the answer to what they represent. Are they part of a recovering remnant population, migration from other jurisdictions, released captives, or some combination?”

In the wake of the Regelink incident, things got pretty exciting around Oro-Medonte. People reported seeing cougars all over the place: one right in Orillia in February 2006, and two at the golf course in Coldwater that spring. The sightings suggested either a small local population of active cougars, more than one escape/release, mass hysteria, or some combination of the above.

“I’ve had a few people now tell me they’ve seen them,” says Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop. “They are respectable people. Half a mile from my home near Coldwater, someone in a subdivision saw one directly behind his house, where wild turkeys had been. I’ve never seen a cougar myself, but the people who say they have seen one, have seen something big. If it were up to me, I’d believe the people.” So far, MNR has managed to steer clear of the controversies embroiling some American wildlife agencies over official responses to reported cougar sightings. But it isn’t showing an aggressive enthusiasm, in the manner of its provincial counterparts in Quebec, to prove the animal’s existence. And Dunlop is not sure MNR is in a position to get to the bottom of the sightings anyway. MNR has undergone so much budget cutting, the Conservative politician notes, that it is basically an enforcement agency now. “I don’t think the money is there to do the research.” Asked about the Regelink incident, MNR’s cougar man, Don Sutherland, concedes, “I really don’t know anything about it.”

At Big Curve Acres Farm, Reta Regelink is weary of the controversy. Losing a horse to a cougar attack—especially when the farm’s business includes visits by school groups—is not the sort of publicity she and her husband coveted.

“There’s no question in our mind what it was,” she maintains, almost a year after the buckskin filly was lost. With the rise in hobby farms, she feels there is enough wild land in Oro-Medonte to support a cougar population. She notes how bear and moose numbers have increased locally. “But we’ve said our piece. At every fall fair we went to afterwards, people were asking about it. They were offering their own stories, or saying maybe we were mistaken. I’ve been told that the only way people are going to believe that cougars are around is when there is a dead one on the hood of a car.”

“We’re beginning,” she confesses, “to feel like we saw a UFO.” Dave Anderson could tell her exactly what that felt like, almost 40 years ago, after an animal he initially thought was a deer stood up on the shoulder of a gravel road north of Kenora, displayed its unforgettable tail, and disappeared into the forest. He hasn’t seen one since. But he knows the ghost cat, at least in his neck of the woods, is out there. —Douglas Hunter


Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: