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Meow Mix

A biologist investigates the catalog of elusive Adirondack wild felines

Cats are not often at the top of the critters-to-see list in the Adirondacks. Nor are they high in the hierarchy of things-we’ve-seen, even among longtime residents. Wild felines are rare here, so it can take an extra split-second for the most wildlife-savvy brain to judge what an Adirondack cat might be. And what our brains come up with can sometimes be as interesting as the cats themselves.

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) have lived here between glaciations for the last two to three million years, but there aren’t many, they’re shy around humans, and they are active mostly after sundown. Far more North Country folks have seen a fisher, a large weasel, than have seen a bobcat. I am still the only Adirondack resident I know who has not yet seen a live fisher in the wild, but I try to console myself with the memory of a rangy bobcat bounding in and (safely) out of my headlights a few years back.

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), once common in northernmost New York, were wiped out of these parts a century ago. “It is a timid animal, and is easily killed,” zoologist James E. De Kay wrote in an 1842 report to the governor, adding, “Its flesh is tender, but insipid.” Eighty-three were reintroduced to the central Adirondacks from Canada from 1989 to 1991. Some were killed by cars, and the rest vanished, perhaps hurried out of Dodge by resident bobcats.

Cougars (Felis concolor), or “mountain lions” to you Westerners, for which Catamount Mountains and Panther Gorge were named, also went the way of the lynx with the assistance of bounty hunters during the nineteenth century. At least, that’s the story from wildlife biologists with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), although they also acknowledge receiving many reports of cougar sightings each year, with eighty-nine recorded during the 1990s alone (see sidebar, below).

If you prefer to stick to the cats that everybody agrees are here, bobcats are well documented by photos, tracks, scat and carcasses in spite of being both secretive and thinly dispersed across the Adirondack Park. With only one per ten or twenty square miles in the North Country and perhaps a thousand in the entire state, it was difficult for Lloyd Fox, a former student of wildlife biologist Rainer Brocke at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Huntington Wildlife Forest, in Newcomb, to find enough of them to study for his doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s.

After many hours in the field Fox was able to show that Adirondack bobcats favor ledge-rich woodlands below twenty-five hundred feet elevation, where the snows are easier to navigate and prey are more diverse and numerous. The local females have smaller home ranges than males (roughly thirty and 125 square miles, respectively), presumably because of their limited mobility during motherhood. Placental scar counts in the females studied by Fox suggest that mothers normally give birth to one to three blind, twelve-ounce kittens in late spring, with older cats producing larger litters. The youngsters’ eyes open after eight or ten days, and they switch from suckling to solid food within a month, eventually leaving the mother to fend for themselves during autumn or winter. If they survive hunger and cold during that crucial first winter, they may live up to seventeen years, the current record for a wild Adirondack bobcat.

How to tell a bobcat from a lynx? Both have a similar facial ruff and two jagged, meat-cleaving premolars behind each spiked upper canine (house cats and cougars have three). Both leave doggie-size droppings, often with fur and other such indigestibles embedded, but with the ends generally rounded rather than tapered like those of a coyote’s or Rover’s calling cards. The black markings on stubby lynx tails cover the entire tip, but bobcat bobs are marked only on their upper surface. Lynx have longer tufts of black fur on the tips of their ears, are taller than bobcats, though less bulky overall when weighed, and they have larger paws (more than four inches across), which serve as snowshoes and make larger tracks. Lynx favor the varying-hare-rich conifer forests of the northern states and Canada, leaving most of the lower forty-eight states to the bobcats.

But there’s an easier way to tell them apart. If you see a bob-tailed, spaniel-size cat in these woods, it’s almost certainly a bobcat. Sightings of lynx during the last century have been even rarer than those of cougars and, considering how similar these two species look, the validity of those few reports is questionable.

Most of us could easily mistake a bobcat for a lynx, but some folks can’t even tell them from cougars. DEC wildlife biologist Al Hicks remembers a starving cougar cub, probably an escapee, that was mistaken for a bobcat and shot near the Sacandaga Reservoir in the 1990s. Paul Jensen, also with the DEC, suspects that some cougar sightings can be traced to, of all things, fishers. “There have been stories of black panthers near Chestertown coming in recently,” he tells me, “almost certainly from sightings of fishers, which have long tails and look sort of catlike at a distance. Most people don’t realize how poor our ability to judge size is.”

Talking to DEC folks who deal regularly with the public can teach you as much about human psychology as about wildlife—and explains why they tend to distrust eyewitness accounts. Environmental Conservation officer Scott Florence remembers a woman who called the Plattsburgh police, screaming, about a cougar in her yard. The responders checked in with her by phone as they approached with lights flashing. “Yes, it’s still here, I’m looking right at it!” And there, right where she said it was, stood a big, fat tabby cat. “And, another time, we investigated a cougar sighting on Long Island. When we arrived, a big old fox ran out in front of us. ‘That’s it! That’s what we saw!’ yelled a whole group of spectators.” I blushed, remembering my own brain indulging in a sudden “Cougar!” response when a tawny, long-tailed fox bounded across a dark road in front of me.

Issues of interpretation also extend to indirect evidence. One of my Paul Smith’s College colleagues recently found what he suspects was a cougar den while bushwhacking near Pigeon Roost, a peak in the McKenzie Range. Hidden in spruce-fir thickets was a cranny in a rocky ledge, surrounded by saplings whose trunks had been clawed and shredded up to chest height. A bobcat weighing upwards of fifty pounds could also reach that high with little trouble, is apt to scratch the ground and trees around a den or a kill, and would favor rocky ledges for sunning and denning.

In 1993, the same year in which a pet cougar escaped in Jefferson County, State Police investigator Thomas Hickey reported seeing a cougar while he was hunting near Keene Valley. A nearby deer kill had puncture wounds in the neck and was covered with loose vegetation. But, in some cases, even grisly evidence doesn’t necessarily spell “cougar.” Believe it or not, bobcats feed on deer too.

Bobcats hunt a variety of small prey such as hares, squirrels, chipmunks and even porcupines during the warmer months, but in winter they start hanging around dense conifer stands where the deer yard up. There they lie in ambush, waiting for a younger or sickly specimen to pass, then leap onto the deer’s back and ride it through the snow. If the cat is large enough and manages to hang on long enough, it may bring a deer down by biting the throat and suffocating it. Large adult males are most likely to win such risky contests. The more diminutive females and inexperienced youngsters make do with smaller prey or carrion during the harsh North Country winter.

Lloyd Fox documented this behavior by visiting deer yards in winter, identifying bobcat tracks in the snow, and skinning out the necks of deer kills to reveal tooth punctures. Of seventeen carcasses found in his study area, seven were killed by bobcats. In one instance, Fox discovered a ledge near Newcomb where a bobcat had ambushed a deer by jumping down onto it. That cat wore one of his radio collars, so Fox was able to show that it stayed with the carcass for more than a week.

Deer killed in this manner are often covered with leaf litter and other debris, and nearby trees may be scratched as a sign of ownership. “It’s a cat thing,” according to Brocke. The scratches release olfactory cues from sweat glands in the paws, warning competitors to stay away. The “cat thing” also involves anal scent gland secretions applied by spraying, a behavior well known to the owners of male house cats, and even includes a taste for catnip which, I’m told, can be used to lure them into traps. “The best way to tell a cougar kill from a bobcat kill,” Brocke concludes, “is not by scratch-marking or neck punctures but by drag marks. Only a cougar can haul a deer carcass away.”

Because bobcats are so rare and reclusive it’s hard to be sure how they are faring here. The only data come from trappers and hunters, who tend to avoid the more inaccessible areas. According to the DEC’s Jensen, bobcats are increasing in the state as a whole, but apparently not in the park. One reason might be a recent decline in snowshoe hares, but Fox’s research suggests that our bobcat population doesn’t rise and fall with hare numbers as lynx do. Coyotes and fishers are a more likely cause, because they compete for the same prey and sometimes kill young cats, and they’ve become more numerous in recent decades. According to Jensen, where the fisher take is large, as it is in the Adirondacks, the number of bobcats shot or trapped is generally low.

Some say that house cats (felis catus) are Adirondack cats, too. They tend to focus their primal instincts on small mammals and birds, as did their ancestors in Europe’s forests (F. silvestris) and North Africa’s scrubby drylands (F. lybica), responding to traits that still linger despite eight thousand years of domestication and selective breeding.

Like the early Egyptians who drew, sculpted and mummified them, many people today still worship cats. But not all of us. Mike Martin, of Saranac Lake, bemoans the loss of the flying squirrels that used to visit his bird feeder to a neighbor’s cat. And naturalist Ted Mack tells me of his own cat, which he normally keeps indoors to limit its depredations. “One day, just one day, I let it outside on a leash,” he says in a confessional tone. “I went into the house for a few minutes, and when I came out again it had somehow managed to catch a hummingbird.”

Are house cats part of the Adirondack ecosystem? They appear on predator menus and can hybridize with bobcats who approach them with something other than dinner in mind. They can infect their wild cousins with feline distemper and panleukopenia, so a tenuous microbial connection exists as well. But their home range is limited and, fortunately for the squirrels and birds, they don’t survive our winters on their own.

Now, suppose that you and your friends are out looking for cat prints in February or March, and you’re frozen in your own tracks by a wild scream, yowl or spitting hiss. You can be forgiven if “it makes every hair on your body stand on end,” as my friend Bruce Landon puts it. But having read this article, you would quickly realize that there was nothing to fear, merely a lovesick bobcat making its presence known in breeding season. You could reassure your companions that there’s no need to wear a human-face mask on the back of your head while hiking in the High Peaks, as some folks in India do to make inquisitive tigers believe they are being watched. I mean, the top of your head would be a much better place to wear it, seeing as bobcats and cougars like to ambush their prey from ledges and tree limbs.

Then again, you might also have a hard time forgetting what bobcats can do to deer. In that case, you should avoid thinking of the day in July 2000 when a central Minnesota woman was bitten and clawed after she yelled at one that was killing a stray cat. “She came bolting through the door and was gushing with blood,” said her husband, whom she awakened from a nap on the couch. “She was hysterical,” he noted to a local reporter, as if surprised.

But once the rational side of your brain comes back online, you can count yourself among the lucky few who’ve made contact with the only wild member of the cat family everyone agrees is really out there, hunting and breeding in our woods.

Cat Conundrum

Unreported cougar sightings are surely even more nu­merous than those phoned in to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and I had no trouble un­earthing several.

A Paul Smiths resident told me that his neighbor watched a cougar through binoculars for several minutes in 2004, and two of my Paul Smith’s College colleagues swear they saw one leap a narrow stretch of the Osgood River. Numerous sighting-stories are circulating in the Thousand Islands area, and St. Lawrence University biologist Bill Casey told me that he watched the back end of a cougar saunter into the woods beside his house after blood-chilling growls drove his large and otherwise courageous dog under the furniture.

Oh, and let’s not forget our ur­ban neighbors across the border. Ask Mon­­­treal residents if they know of any cougars on the prowl, and they’ll respond with a wry smile and a chuckle. Up there, the term refers to amorous middle-aged women who prey upon hunky young men.

It’s anyone’s guess how many animals these reports represent, but Al Hicks, mammal specialist in the DEC’s Endangered Species Program, has a firm answer: “None,” he says. “As a biologist, I need to base my conclusions on hard data. Eyewitness accounts, even those from credible sources, are of little scientific value compared to photos or DNA samples. And where are the tracks? Nobody ever, ever, in the history of the universe, has rigorously documented a cougar track in the Adirondacks.”

Rainer Brocke, professor emeritus from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, is also skeptical. “If such big cats were living and breeding here regularly, we’d have far more evidence than we do,” he says. “Some would eventually be shot or hit by cars, but that just hasn’t happened.” Roland Kays, curator of mammals with the New York State Museum, in Albany, concurs: “In Florida, panthers are extremely rare, but they are still hit by cars and they leave prints on dirt roads. We’re not finding tracks like that in the Adirondacks, even with fresh snow on the ground.”

According to Hicks, Brocke and Kays, the only cougars padding around our forests are former pets. Hicks told me that one was shot after escaping near Albany in the 1970s, and another escaped in Jefferson County in 1993. The number of unreported ex-pets is probably much greater than the official tally because cougars cannot be kept, except under special permit, in New York State.

Venues such as roadside zoos and private “sanctuaries” breed cougars to keep a supply of cuddly cubs for tourist bait, and cubs have become even more valuable as federal and state regulations increasingly re­strict public exposure to adult cats in response to maulings. A captive female cougar can produce more than a dozen young per year for twenty years. And where do you suppose someone goes to unleash a contraband cat when it becomes too much to handle?

DEC lieutenant Scott Florence once investigated a Long Islander who kept a cougar. “By the time his was six months old, he’d lost control of it,” he says. “It was ripping his apartment to pieces, and he was actually relieved that we showed up.” But the guy said his friend had re­leased a second cat at a rest stop in the Adi­rondacks. Meanwhile, another fellow was telling Buffalo police he’d re­cently found his panther at an Adirondack rest stop.

The Adirondack Atlas (Wildlife Conservation Society, Adirondack Museum and Syracuse University, 2004) presents data showing that cougar sightings have increased markedly in recent decades. Does that trend reflect changes in the exotic pet trade, or is it a sign of natural recovery? Most of the newer sightings cluster in the northeastern quadrant of the park, a possible immigration route from northern Maine, where wild cougars have been reliably documented. The atlas tells of a mother and cubs in Black Brook in 1989, and of a “large cat” near Crown Point in 1997 with two smaller cats in tow. But even if we had physical evidence to support those claims, we still don’t know whether they represent wild animals or simply escapees who happened to meet and mate. 

Note from the author (March 2015): Since this article was written, Protect The Adirondacks has compiled a database of cougar sightings in the region (“Cougar Watch”), and we have had a spectacular confirmation that cougars can appear in places where they aren’t officially recognized as residents. A young male mountain lion made headlines in 2011 when it was struck and killed by a vehicle in Connecticut. DNA evidence from scats and body tissues showed that the 140-pound cat had traveled about 1,500 miles on a long, rambling journey from South Dakota. The news triggered a predictable range of responses, from, “See, I told you they could be here,” to, “Sure, but they’re not full-timers.” Even so, some facts remain. The Adirondacks was once prime cougar country. It is still possible to encounter them here now on occasion. And if they spend much time in one location—not as fox, fisher, or flabby tabby imposters but as the real deal—you can expect them to leave tell-tale scats, tracks, or a dead body on the side of a road, as this one did.

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