Cougars in Illinois?
About the probable return of the big cats
An unexpectedly interesting assignment from editor Peggy Boyer Long, which resulted in an unexpectedly popular piece, probably the most popular in fact of the dozens I did for the magazine.
I updated the story in this 2012 column for Illinois Times.
Democratic governors came back to Illinois—why not cougars? Officially, Illinois has no wild cougars; the cougar is not listed as an endangered species in Illinois for the simple reason that a species can’t be endangered in a place where it doesn't exist. Donald Hoffmeister, former director of the University of Illinois’s Museum of Natural History, who authored what amounts to the Debrett’s of Illinois mammalia, reports that cougars were probably exterminated in Illinois before 1870. Today the only cougars in Illinois are kept in zoos and in people’s homes, illegally, as pets.
Or are they? Quite a few sane and sensible citizens have concluded that the cougar dwells here again. More than 150 cougar sightings have been reported in Illinois since 1950, according to the Eastern Puma Research Network.
Cougars, or things that look like cougars, have been seen in as many places in Illinois in recent years as presidential candidates. In DeKalb County in 1990, some law enforcement authorities blamed a big cat for killing farm animals. Security staff at Fort Sheridan on Chicago’s North Shore were sent on a wild cat chase in 1993 after a cougar sighting there. Multiple sightings were logged in and around Edwardsville in 1998, including at the local campus of Southern Illinois University—the home, as it happens, of the Cougars—and along Macoupin Creek near Carlinville in ’03 and ’04. In deep southern Illinois, cougars would seem to be as common along some back roads as pickup trucks.
The most recent spate of sightings began just after the new year in far northeast Illinois. Large wild animals were driven out of suburban Lake County long ago—the area’s real estate prices would make a badger weep—but so far in 2004 some 50 residents have reported cougar-like critters. Typical was the report of at least one and maybe two cougars trespassing on a back yard in Antioch, crossing a forest preserve bicycle path and crouching, presumably with intent, at the edge of a cornfield.
It is rare to see any new firm set up shop in Illinois without a tax incentive. If a company of cougars has done so, it confirms what our pioneer forebears knew about the cat's resourcefulness and its independence. Physically, Felisconcolor is an admirable creature. The cougar is not a huge animal—even a strapping adult male would not make the offensive line of most high school football teams—and it has little endurance in the chase. But the cat is astonishingly agile, strong, and quick, which is why so many sports teams in the state hopefully nicknamed themselves the Cougars or the Panthers.
The big cat once could be found everywhere in the state. Solitary in habit, the cat usually hunts at night, and was usually heard rather than seen. (Its peculiar scream is hair-raising.) Frontier memoirist Eliza Farnham reported that while a panther was occasionally found in the deep forest along the creek bottoms of Tazewell County when she lived there in the 1840s, none ever ventured onto the open prairies. When cat did meet human, the results—at least the results that were remembered and written about—were often bloody. The pioneer annals of life around McKee Creek in Montgomery County tell of a youth snatched off his pony and killed and partly devoured by a cat. A more typical ending was engineered by one William Huffmaster who lived on Lick Creek in Sangamon County’s Loami Township. He and a neighbor are said to have treed an animal they knew as a panther; while the neighbor left to fetch a gun, Huffmaster, with the help of his dogs, caught the animal and clubbed it to death.
As one might expect in a creature that ranges across the whole of the continent, the cougar has picked up a lot of names, including catamount, painter, mountain lion, and puma. In ye olde Illinois, the big cats were known almost universally as panthers. That era is recalled in the place names left behind by the state’s first Euro-Americans. Illinois has no landscape feature officially named after the cougar, but the mappers of the U.S. Geological Survey list more than a dozen “Panther Creeks” along with their forks and branches, plus a Panther Grove, a Panther Hollow, and a Panther Den.
Today, oddly, the animal is described by the media and government agencies as the cougar, a name that is of Indian origin. “Cougar” seems to be preferred by the wildlife experts who usually provide reporters with informed opinion, possibly to avoid confusion with the leopards of Asia and Africa, which are also known as panthers. “Panther” has always been the commonest usage in the American South, and the early reference for the term in Illinois no doubt owes to the Southern origin of so many of the state’s settlers. (The cat is still popularly known as the panther in southern Illinois.) The word shift means that Illinois may be recovering a bit of its four-legged pioneer heritage as it loses a bit of its linguistic one.
To conclude that cougars are again resident in Illinois, however, is to get ahead of the facts. Not all the animals reported as cougars are cougars, and not all the cougars sighted may be wild cougars, and not all the wild cougars sighted are members of resident breeding populations. The Eastern Cougar Network, a nonprofit wildlife research organization whose staff zoologist is Clay Nielsen of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, confirms just one cougar in Illinois.
No doubt many, even most, of the sightings owe to poor eyesight, confusion—it acquired the name “mountain lion,” after all, from settlers who mistook it for a female African lion—or over-keen imaginations. One of the last belongs to businessman Virgil Smith of Harrisburg, who for years insisted that 250 to 300 cougars are living wild in Illinois as a result of a secret cougar release program run by state and federal officials. There is no such program, although to the conspiracy-minded, the fact that a government agency denies it is ipso facto proof of the story’s accuracy. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources for years publicly demanded that Smith offer them either evidence for his claims or an apology but received neither.
The secret government cougar is not the only subspecies of that cat thought to be prowling Illinois. Parts of the state seem to be suffering a plague of black panthers, which hereabouts means not leopards (the only true black panther) but the black or melanistic form of the cougar. The Eastern Puma Research Network, not to be confused with the science-based Eastern Cougar Network, calculated that up to a third of more than 600 cougar sightings in the eastern United States from 1983 to 1989 involved black panthers—a much higher proportion than in the western United States. In Illinois, the incidence was even higher; a majority of the sightings made around Shawnee National Forest in that period were of black animals. In Decatur, farther north, so many black panthers have been spotted since the 1950s that the city has become famous among paranormals, who regard a black cat that can weigh up to 160 pounds as the Cadillac Escalade of portents.
The problem is, it is not certain that the cougar has a melanistic form, at least in North America. Black pumas are known in South America, where the pet cougars sold in this country originate. That raises the possibility that people are seeing escaped or released pets. But pet black cougars would have to be as commonplace in Illinois as cocker spaniels to explain so many sightings over so many years.
The mystery cats attracted to Illinois a member of Britain’s Centre for Fortean Zoology, which calls itself the only professional, scientific, and full-time organization in the world dedicated to cryptozoology, or the study of unknown animals. His investigation, like all such investigations, came to no conclusion. Dozens of sightings have yielded very few bits of indisputable forensic evidence of the animal’s presence, such as paw prints or scat, which is why skeptics lump the Illinois black panther with other mythic creatures such as Bigfoot and the compassionate conservative.
There seems little doubt that most of the animals perceived as cougars, whatever their color, are probably coyotes or feral dogs. In 1986, sleepy residents of a Waukegan apartment complex reported a lion on the premises; the animal turned out to be an escaped junkyard dog whose owner had given him a lion-type haircut to scare off prowlers. One of this year’s sightings in Lake County—reported by a woman who called police to tell them she was trailing a cougar by car near the town of Wadsworth—turned out to be a coyote. And examination of at least three sets of suspect paw prints collected during the most recent Lake County hoo-ha led wildlife experts to declare them those of a canine.
Plenty of credible witnesses remain convinced that what they have seen was no dog. Most experts reply that while there may indeed be cougars out there, they are merely escaped or abandoned pets or circus animals. It can be assumed that many cougars are being kept as pets or in makeshift zoos in Illinois, as are other exotic creatures that could easily be mistaken for cougars. That such animals sometimes escape was confirmed in 2000 and 2001 when two former pet cougars were found by Department of Natural Resources staff roaming downstate Illinois.
Ecologists may find the distinction between a wild cougar and an escaped or abandoned pet to be essential, but it may strike many people as meaningless. A cougar is a cougar, and if it is at large and living successfully in the wild, it is, for all practical purposes, a wild animal. A hiker who is having her arm chewed off by a big cat will find the question of whether it is a released pet from the South American genetic line or a migrant into Illinois from North American wild stock to be interesting but, under the circumstances, not very urgent.
Twenty years ago it was reasonable to assume that any big cat found in Illinois had to have been carried into it in a box. But 20 years of enlightened green policies since then have left the midcontinent crisscrossed with wild-ish places that serve as stepping stones on which animals can safely cross otherwise inhospitable terrain. Illinois offers plenty of habitat in the forests of southern Illinois or the wooded river valleys. Even in suburban Lake County, a big cat would find 25,000 acres of forest in preserves along the Des Plaines River and plentiful food in the form of deer; indeed, Lake County would be to a hungry cat what a government job used to be for humans.
That some cats are exploring this part of the Midwest is known. In 2000, a cougar was killed by a train in Randolph County. Wildlife experts at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who examined its carcass found that the animal showed no signs of captive rearing. It had the remnants of a deer fawn in its belly, not pet food, and its DNA confirmed it to have been of North American origin rather than of South American stock, as would be true of an escaped or released pet. Investigators reporting the finding in the Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science described it as “the first confirmed occurrence of a cougar in Illinois in over 100 years.”
It is hard to imagine that this unlucky cat is the only cougar to find life in Illinois to its liking. The species is wide-ranging, and for years has been slowly recolonizing parts of North America from which it was driven long ago. Migrants from established populations in Canada and the western United States have penetrated the Great Plains, the upper Midwest, and the East. (Cougars moving south from the Black Hills have popped up in Nebraska, for example.) The known cougar populations closest to Illinois are in Texas and Colorado. The Eastern Cougar Network has confirmed seven cougars in Missouri and three in Iowa. Cougars may also have set up shop, as it were, in the Arkansas Ozarks and in eastern Kentucky. To an animal that can cover a hundred miles in a day, this is just up the street.
One stray cat in Randolph County does not prove the presence of breeding populations of wild cougars, but if the big cats are not yet permanent residents, it seems inevitable that they will be soon. What then for state and local government policy? For decades it has been general policy to protect most of Illinois’s remnant wildlife from people. The fruit of that policy is the return to Illinois of large wild animals of more types than the state has seen in more than a century. River otters again grace its large rivers, and bobcats are making life interesting for small animals in some forests. Coyotes are as common in Illinois as highway potholes, and beavers are again re-engineering the state’s waterways. Deer are so plentiful that many suburban gardeners would welcome the help of a hungry cougar to teach them manners.
But while such critters are wild they are not very wild—not like the wolf or bear or cougar. The renewed presence of these large predators will force authorities to ponder how to protect people from wildlife for the first time since the days when the state paid its citizens a bounty for every wolf they killed. Recent fatal attacks by cougars on adult humans in the West shocked wildlife experts as well as residents because all their textbooks had insisted the cougar is a timid creature in the presence of people. Modern hunting bans, however, have created generations of animals that have lost much of their fear of humans. A policy of protecting animals may be making people more vulnerable.
As long as cougars don’t try to turn property owners into prey, the larger public seems likely to remain less afraid than curious. In Lake County, when the scent of cougars is in the air, the county has warned residents to keep pets inside the house. But the sudden appearance of an elegant and exotic creature in a part of the state not famous for either elegance or exoticism is diverting, if only because it gives everyone something to talk about with the neighbors other than traffic jams around Gurnee.
In this they could not differ more from the region’s pioneer forebears, who would have reached for a rifle if they saw a cougar. Today, residents are likely to reach for the video camera. This may mark us not as braver than our ancestors, merely less experienced. In a world in which we enjoy an unnatural absence of danger from wild beasts, our natural fear of big cats has been misplaced. Today we know them only from the sanitized images from TV wildlife documentaries and the zombie-ized specimens trapped in zoos. We no longer appreciate their wildness or their strength.
Is our collective fear of wild animals really gone? Or is it merely forgotten, tucked away in our mental attics because we no longer need it in an Illinois in which the only predators most of us face are on the highways? “Once we were as hunted as rabbits, as vulnerable as mice,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Bill Stokes in 1991, “and perhaps therein is the reason for our perverted fascination with the untamed unknown. In the deepest recesses of our being, maybe we hark back with an odd nostalgia to a time when there were cougars staring at us from the darkness of the forests.”
Nostalgia? Not quite. But the prospect of meeting a dangerous wild animal makes us momentarily alive again in a way that our pampered existence seldom requires. That alone may be reason enough to welcome them back to Illinois. ●