Sighting reports are up, but experts find little hard evidence
By Carolyn Starks – Chicago Tribune reporter
October 6, 2008
Robert Poyner Sr. feared somebody might think he was crazy or seeing things, but he made the emergency call anyway to report that two cougars had just crossed a road in Wonder Lake.
Feigning enthusiasm, the 911 operator promised to send a squad car, but when it arrived, the animals were long gone, he said.
“I am retired, but I don’t have time to fabricate stories,” said Poyner, 64, who called police last month after he said a pair of animals with long tails and tawny coats sashayed in front of his minivan. “I swear on my last dollar that it was two cougars.”
The former truck driver is now among thousands across the country who believe they have seen one of North America’s premier predators.
Evidence needed to confirm a cougar sighting Although no one keeps an official tally, calls about cougar sightings are hitting record numbers in Illinois and the Chicago area, making it difficult for wildlife ecologists to separate real evidence from hoaxes, experts say.
Undeniably, many of the calls stem from interest in the animals sparked by the shooting of a cougar in Chicago in April.
“If I had to answer the phone every time someone called with a sighting, I wouldn’t get any work done,” said Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus. He is also the scientific research director for The Cougar Network, which tracks cougar populations in the country. “If there was one central agency collecting them, there would be tens of thousands per year.”
Ecologists say it is extremely rare to see a cougar in the wild. But the line between backyards and wilderness is becoming more blurred. The elusive cougar, native in Illinois a century ago, is heading back to the Midwest from overcrowded habitats in the Rockies and Black Hills.
Since 1990, about 40 cougar sightings have been confirmed in the Midwest, mostly in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri, according to The Cougar Network.
Three have been confirmed in Illinois, including the one in April. In July 2000, a 110-pound male was killed by a train in Randolph County at the Missouri border. In December 2004, a cougar killed by a bow and arrow was found by a hunter in New Boston near the Iowa border.
The young male cougar that police shot in Chicago probably took a 1,000-mile journey from the Black Hills through Wisconsin before making its final stand in Roscoe Village, officials said.
“After that one in Chicago, everybody started calling and seeing cougars,” said Donna Alexander, administrator of the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control.
Averaging 18 sightings a day for weeks, agency staff worked overtime and went up in a helicopter to scan for cougars. “We went out and investigated every single call,” Alexander said. “All of them turned out to be bogus.”
Mike Conlin, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, said his agency doesn’t respond to every cougar call. But he said the agency realizes that “any particular report could be valid, and we expect to get more as time goes on.”
When the light dims and someone squints across a field, it’s difficult to see clearly. Soon deer, coyotes and even dogs morph into cougars, Conlin said.
Officials need hard evidence: fur, a carcass, scat, a paw print, a legitimate photo.
In other cases, animals ranging from very large house cats to yellow Labrador Retrievers and deer were mistaken for cougars when reports were followed up, according to The Cougar Fund, a non-profit organization.
“Four summers ago we received hundreds of sightings in the Chicago area with no evidence of anything,” Nielsen said. “Does that mean there wasn’t a cougar there? No. It means we didn’t get any evidence.”
After seeing the animals in Wonder Lake, Poyner went home and woke up his son to download a photo of a cougar. Then he drove back to Thompson Road, where he had seen the two animals. The semirural, two-lane road is flanked in the distance by woods and houses.
Poyner hiked through brush in search of paw prints, fur, anything.
“I may be old,” he said. “But I’m not blind.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org