Sunday, December 18, 2011

In Touch with My Wild Side

Today, I got to do something (again) that the majority of humans don't have an opportunity to do.  Interact with big(ger) Cats.

Today was my first day at the zoo.  I won't bore you with the hours of details on enclosure cleaning, promise.  I won't tell you about interacting with the red pandas, prairie dogs, or langurs.  What I will tell you about are the amazing cats that I had an opportunity to interact with today: snow leopards, bobcats, and my beloved cougars.

A photo I took of one of our
Snow Leopards in 2011.
These are really some amazing animals and each are vastly different.  The snow leopards (aka Panthera unciawere great to be near - and so very close!  The ones here are a family - mother (whose name I can't recall - it was long!), father (Czar), and new daughter (Kenji).  The two females were in the outside enclosure while Czar was in the inside enclosure.  He weighs about 110 pounds (visual estimation only) and was quite mellow.  Of course, to him I'm merely 'the keep'... there to sweep up and spray down his room while he pretended to sleep and not notice me.  He liked to grunt at people, though, which amused me.  Of note, their fur is just as thick and luxurious as it looks; while I see the draw to making them into garments I detest the mere idea of it.  His coat is by far prettier on him.  What I think made him truly adorable to me was his teddy bear.  Yes, his teddy bear.

The bobcats (aka Lynx rufus) were cute - named Gene and Joan (like Gene Simmons and Joan Jett).  It's assumed that they are brother and sister.  Both were prior 'pets' and found released in the city some time ago.  I was distracting them with mice and was enthralled when they kept swatting my hand to get my attention - so very house-cat like!  They are much smaller than the snow leopards, both the size of medium dogs with Gene being a little larger than Joan.  Once again, a great example of why people should NOT assume they should have exotic pets... how irresponsible to force animals to imprint on humans only to them release them to fend for themselves just assuming they will find their wild side.  Amazing little animals!

A photo I took of Coby earlier in 2011.
Of course, that leaves only the cougars (or Puma Concolor - meaning 'cat of one color') to tell you about: Miamya (mee-ah-mie-ah) and Coby.  First off, neither cat has their tail - the most prominent sign on a cougar - each for different reasons.  Coby, who is quite a big boy, lost his in an 'incident' at one time with another animal.  They are also both declawed.  Coby, despite his lack of tail or claws, is still a very impressive cat to behold.  He probably weighs in around 180 lbs and, without his tail, he's probably 4.5-5 feet long.  With his tail, he'd be an easy 6-7' cat.  His head is the perfect shape and his teeth were still incredibly large.  He grunted while I was there but I didn't get to his hear his token cougar growl.  Miamya is quite different.  She was... amazing for different reasons.  Her story is long, but the short version is that she was once a school mascot... but as the school was the bobcats and she is a cougar, they had her tail bobbed and also did a relatively bad job declawing her and filing down her teeth.  It's also suspected that she was once hit by a car in her 'prior life' and she has a pronounced limp.  She's a small cougar, maybe 90-100 lbs at most.  She had an awesome disposition and, due to her perfect little 'meow' and purring, I fell in love with her.  Her sordid history makes the plight of her species all the more prominent in my mind.

I can't wait for my next day!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Eastern" Cougars?

Eastern cougar

A photo I took of Coby, Puma Concolor
When you say "Eastern cougar" what do people hear? I think they hear
"cougar that reside in the east" rather than identifying this as a specific subspecies of the great cat. This is quite the misnomer. Eastern cougars, which were recently confirmed and declared formally extinct by the USFWS, are a specific subspecies of cougar (puma concolor couguar) rather like the Florida subspecies (puma concolor coryi). Traditionally, it is accepted that the eastern cougar's natural range extended from Canadian provinces west to the Mississippi and south into Tennessee extending to the coast. The Florida panther home range was estimated to range from southern florida up to and bordering the range of the eastern cougar.

The reason this is important is because, while the eastern cougar has been declared extinct, that does not mean that individuals from the current Floria population or the western population haven't begun dispersing to our region. Furthermore, there are estimates ranging from a mere 100 up to 1,000 captive cougars of varied genetic composition in captivity in the eastern united states. Hypothetically, if any of the transient males that have begun dispersing (as the ones we have proof of are all subadult males) were to encounter a released or escaped female... Maybe then we would actually see a population rather than just individuals.

But my questions specifically surround protection. With the eastern cougar being declared extinct, what are the repercussions of shooting a cougar now in this region? With no big game laws around it, does that negate the ability to kill it indiscriminately? For this I seek advice with more knowledge on the subject than I. I asked a hunter friend who I consider a reliable resource and he states that in TN it would have to be a very clear case of self-defense to keep a hunter out of trouble - that there is no season (and therefore you cannot shoot for the sake of shooting) for the cat.

So let's make a drastic flying leap with some data... There was a confirmed western cat in CT and a confirmed Florida cat in mid-Georgia. That's 2 males - lets assume that is half of the transients that made it this far. If we take the middle ground on potential captive cats, that's 500. Of that 500, let's say that 5% are released illegally because they aren't nearly as cuddly when they weight 150 lbs and realize they can eat you. That's 25 individuals. Now let's say that 1% escaped, which is another 5 individuals. Of those, we can estimate that 50% are female. So now we have a wild population of 32 cats in 15 states with 17 males (large range) and 15 females. Looking at just the national forests (c/o, there is a strong stretch of wooded lands from the Chattahootchee in northern GA extending up to northern VA. A very large range hitting exactly where I live... Southeastern TN, northwest GA, southwest NC.

I know from personal knowledge that deer densities of this region are high. So are coyote and black bear densities. So what, then, are the odds that this would be a place of refuge for either dispersed nomads or former captives?