I was 9 years old when I first saw a cougar up close. The University of South Alabama kept him in a large pen shaded by tall Southern pines beside the science building. I often stopped by to watch him pace his cage, because I lived on campus when my father worked there in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Biologist Don Linzey taught at the school then, and he also remembers the big cat. After determining that a wild release wasn’t possible, he helped find it a better home in Florida. These days, he’s still looking out for these elegant creatures, the largest wild felines in North America.
“Mountain lion, cougar, puma, painter, panther—they’re all the same animal,” says Linzey, who’s now a professor at Wytheville Community College in Virginia. He’s also on the board of Discover Life in America, the nonprofit which that’s coordinating a comprehensive inventory of all living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Linzey is the guy rangers, scientists and the curious call to ask, “Do cougars still live in the Southern Appalachians?”—the topic of a June 13 presentation he’ll be giving in Asheville.
“The cougar has been called the ‘ghost of the forest,’” notes Linzey, who’s been studying mountain mammals since the mid-1960s, when he was a park naturalist stationed in Cosby, Tenn. But trying to confirm the elusive animal’s existence “isn’t like looking for a flock of turkeys or bears,” he explains. Linzey should know: He follows up on every alleged sighting of cougars, which—at 80 to 100 pounds—are four to five times the size of a bobcat or a small coyote.
The biologist recently spoke to someone claiming to have seen a cougar, in fact, though the sighting happened 15 to 20 years ago. Nonetheless, he’ll mark it on his map with a pin color-coded to the appropriate decade. Linzey also tracks Internet rumors, like the one about a cougar allegedly seen sitting on a front porch in Wytheville a few years ago (he refuted that one).
Deer, bobcats and coyotes are all sometimes mistaken for cougars—all are tan-colored, and folks typically catch only a fleeting glimpse. Linzey also gets photographs submitted as proof that were obviously taken elsewhere. But he researches the most credible sightings, and his dog, Brandi, helps sniff out the signs.
“She doesn’t pay any attention to horse or deer droppings; she focuses on the carnivores,” says Linzey. When he’s walking the park with her, Brandi zeroes in on scat that’s hidden in the leaves. But so far, they’ve found only bobcat and coyote droppings (to be sure, Linzey has the samples DNA-tested at his own expense).
He’s also tracking another Smokies mystery. Discover Life’s biodiversity study has recorded a significant drop in the park’s shrew and mice populations during the last 10 years, which Linzey says might be caused by coyotes. “Most people [associate] them with the West, but they’ve naturally extended their range east” as their traditional habitat has changed, he explains, adding, “I hear them howling [near] my home in Gatlinburg every now and then.” Because the coyotes’ arrival in the park occurred naturally, they’re considered a protected species, unlike the feral pigs that settlers inadvertently introduced.
Black bears, of course, are long-standing regional residents, and when asked about a recent increase in sightings, Linzey replies: “It’s a hard time for the bears right now. There was a good nut crop last fall, but now the hickories and such are getting old, and the bears are foraging further.”
Cougars, though, keep a low profile. Linzey has two photos that could place the big cats in the park as recently as 2003 or ‘04. He also has a handout showing the difference between cougar, coyote and dog tracks. “You don’t see claw marks on a cougar’s,” he explains. He even has a recording of typical cougar sounds, though without the one that sounds like a woman crying. “That would only occur when the cougars are breeding,” says Linzey, “and I don’t have that.”
Linzey’s June 13 program will start at 2 p.m. at the Folk Art Center (milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in east Asheville). Part of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center’s annual meeting, it’s free for Friends members, $5 for the general public. A kid-friendly cougar program will follow at 3:30 p.m. at the Nature Center. Don Linzey is the author of A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.