A Western Cougar in a Connecticut Corner
This article contains several of the 57 names of the animal we know as the cougar. Some of these are names from Indian tribes, while others are from areas of the country where these magnificent cats once lived. There is a genetic dispute about the distinctiveness of this animal. However, the western cat is commonly known as the Western Cougar, while its eastern cousin is commonly known as the Eastern Panther. This article is about a Western Cougar, although both cats combined have generated some 57 known names.
On June 11, 2011, a car struck and killed a mountain lion. This is not a highly unusual circumstance, except for where it happened: in Milford, Connecticut! This town of just over 56,000 people located in New Haven County, and near New Haven, home to Yale University, is over 1,000 miles from any documented cougar population.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Wildlife Genetic Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, matched DNA taken from droppings, blood and hair found at the location of mountain lion sightings in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010 with DNA taken from the cougar in Connecticut. This catawampus was a Western cougar that had migrated over 1500 miles from South Dakota, more than twice as far as a mountain screamer has been known to travel in search of food or a new home.
For many years, there have been sightings of large cats east of the Mississippi River, and for just as many years, wildlife officials have maintained that those sightings were either wrong, were observations of lynx or large house cats, or were those of captive cougar escapees. In November of 2008, a hunter in LaGrange shot a large cat from his tree stand. While Georgia officials thought it was most likely a captive escapee, DNA testing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proved it was a Florida panther that had migrated 600 miles north into Georgia from the Florida Everglades. The Florida Panther Project in the Everglades is the only documented population of large cats east of the Mississippi River, which has reached its holding capacity of swamp lions, the rarest cat in the world.
Painters have a habit of climbing to high places to observe their surroundings. Imagine the instinct and the way this purple tail used it senses to determine how to pick its path from South Dakota to Connecticut. While it could easily move through the countryside of South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, how did it accomplish the following feats: If its journey began west of the Missouri River, how did it cross that river expanse? If it began east of the Missouri River, how did it cross the mighty Mississippi? Did the sneak cat steal across an Interstate bridge in the middle of the night, or go for an arduous swim through waters with treacherous currents? This wily and powerful puma is capable of either feat.
Since there is evidence that the deer tiger traveled through Minnesota, it is likely that the Klandagi would have crossed the Mississippi near La Crosse, Wisconsin, where it would have journeyed across the state until it reached the eastern edge of Wisconsin, and its next small water problem, called Lake Michigan. Staring across Lake Michigan from one side reveals no visible land mass on the other side, from Door County in the north to Kenosha where Wisconsin meets Illinois in the south. The waters are cold and few creatures would survive such a daunting swim.
At this point in its journey, about 600 miles as the crow flies, the catamount would have two choices: go north along the lake shore into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it would encounter the cold confluence of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and over 2 miles of open water, or go further north into Canada by crossing around Sault Ste. Marie and trekking through the Great Lakes region of Canada, at some point having had to cross the Saint Lawrence Seaway to enter New York and then reach Connecticut, or travel south through the densely populated areas of Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary, Indiana to begin its trek across the rust belt. Of course, it could have jumped on a ferry crossing Lake Michigan, but we view that as doubtful.
Having now arrived in either upper Michigan or northern Indiana, this Caracajou would have about 1,000 miles yet to travel to reach Connecticut. Likely the silver lion would have traveled through northern Indiana, where the Plains lion would travel across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and into Connecticut, assuming it did not take a side journey to catch a Giants football game in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Regardless of its path, this amazing journey resolves two contentious points: 1) Erielhonan can travel longer distances than previously known near densely populated cities in search of a new home, end up in any state in the U.S., and are not limited to the West, and 2) ghost cats are rarely sighted or leave a damage path of missing dogs, cats or people along the way. Their preferred food is deer, although they will eat smaller mammals and birds, and every state east of the Mississippi River has an over-population of deer.
It is likely that both the Western cougar in Connecticut and the Florida panther in southwest Georgia moved across large expanses of land plentiful with deer for food and rivers and lakes for water. And, since these elusive animals are rarely sighted, it is quite possible that some have settled in areas of their former range, which includes every state in the U.S., and most areas of southern Canada. They already inhabit the countryside from Mexico through Central American into South America.
The Wildlife Sanctuary is home to two Eastern Panthers and six Western Cougars. Cheyenne, a male over 14 years old, recently passed away. We were honored by his presence at the sanctuary, where we work to preserve species and return animals to the wild whenever possible. Your contributions make this possible. We hope you will help us rebuild the sanctuary from the damage caused by the tornado in April 2011. Please make a donation today.