The summer is closing. We race to enjoy its final offerings on the East Coast, a trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, one to the quaint nineteenth century port of Hudson, a planned trip to Fire Island. The leaves here upstate are already changing, turning crimson, orange, giving us a hint of what is to come. Yesterday I looked up to see a flock of birds on their migration south and then beyond them saw a vapor trail of a transatlantic jet leaving JFK and had a deep pang of longing, to be headed to Europe, to France or Italy, but I know that has to wait.
We have spent much of Covid now in Upstate New York and I realized quite quickly when I first moved to the Catskills that it is a place brimming with unsubstantiated rumors and unreliable history. More charitably perhaps some of these we could call this insider jokes, usually at the expense of those of us who came up from New York City at weekends and during holidays; they are largely good humored and full of ironic, folksy country wisdom. One of these circulating is about mountain lions, sometime called “cougars, pumas or panthers” that do not exist in the region, except in the minds of those who have seen one, which is almost everyone I have met locally, and from last week I tentatively added myself to the list. Sceptics will tell us that we don’t know the difference between a Bob cat, which are much smaller, have a short tail and are common throughout the region, and a mountain lion. But before we get into details, we might consider the germination of the stories asserting that they do roam here and try not to get too embroiled in wider questions about Americans distain for authority and governance by experts.
Typing into your search engine “Upstate New York mountain lions” will take you on a strange adventure. Unsurprisingly, we start hearing about them in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when colonists wrote about and reported on their fearsome presence. Their predecessors, the Lennie Lenape Indians, had made their peace with all the occupants of the natural world; they called them ghost walkers on account of their solitary nature and near invisibility around humans. But they were hunted mercilessly by the Dutch and English and eventually by 1904 they were officially gone this side of the Mississippi. However their presence never really left the imaginations of the residents who needed to revive them during freezing and uneventful winters. The sightings reported in the press and on the internet forums seem credible and emphatic, and alarmingly many are very close to where I live in Andes near the Pepacton reservoir. Frequently they are reported by people who live within nature’s complex ways and have an understanding of its nuances, workers with the DEP or hunters who spend extended periods in forests and densely wooded areas. These are solitary people whose pride is hurt when their claims are dismissed as mis-sightings – they have seen a bob cat, a feral cat, a large dog, a small deer, prompting further postings or reports.
A common thread is the theory that the government is behind re-populations of big cats and that there presence is well known by the authorities and, like UFO’s, any evidence is quickly destroyed or hidden. But for what end? Is it like ‘Jaws” where fear of losing tourism is the reason for hiding facts? Or is it really to mask details of an unpopular tactical mission to repopulate the forests with these predators? What is undeniable is the contempt thrown at the DEC who dismiss all sightings and deny the presence of these animals. Reluctantly they note that lone cases might exist but these are long distance wanderers from the west and there is the potential for pets let loose into the wildness accidentally or on purpose.
On an early August morning we drove down our narrow street, Bussey Hollow Road, the sun painting broad strokes of light across the tarmac, the dazzling light somehow weaving its way through the density of green pine forests surrounding us and exposing sublime patches of the hillside. Suddenly something large leapt across the road in front of us, almost with a single bound. We looked at each other and grasped at rationality; it must have been a very large dog let loose? Wrong color and movement, a small deer, no. It had to be a bob cat but it seemed too large and I did I imagine a full tail rather than the bob cats small stump? I thought no more about it until later that day when standing at the front of the house and looking at the road I saw a sudden rapid movement, I was being observed by an animal with cat like posture which moved away at astonishing speed. Later I took a walk up the road and this is where I encountered the animal itself as it jumped from the side of the road into the deep woods. It was just a momentary glimpse from a distance, there was no certainty about anything except it was large, a caramel color, and an uncommon agility for an animal that size. Had a seen a large Bob cat? Probably, yet…..I was shaken and turned on my heels to go home being careful not to run or walk quickly away. Like that other unfairly feared local, the Bear, running way might just trigger latent predatory instincts in the wrong animal. Since then I have studied prints in the soft mud around the house and have talked myself into seeing some large paw prints. I have been close to large cats before, enough to make my heart race. In my thirties I spent a fair amount of time in Southern Africa and a component of that work trip would be weekends travelling to Pretoria or the Kruger National Park where from the safety of the car we would get very close to lazy, satiated Lions, close enough to smell them and to occasionally hear a bone chilling roar close up. One memory is seeing one run and note the bagginess of its flesh covering its bones. This is what I remembered also on this day as I walked up the road….yet the case against their existence here is strong, namely the absence of remains of their prey. We do not see mangled deer despite the fact that there is an abundance here, or the blackened, tattooed remains of Williamsburg hipsters caught unawares while walking in the forest. But also we don’t see them as road kill which is the most likely way we encounter these mountains shy residents.