Cougar

Cougar

Larry Johnson was driving along Ky. 255 from Park City to Mammoth Cave National Park one morning around 6:30 a.m. last fall when he saw an animal crossing the road in front of him.

“The first thing I thought was it’s a coyote. He was not running. He was just sauntering across the road,” he said.

As he watched the animal cross the highway he noticed its tail was long and round.

“I said that is a mountain lion,” he said. “It couldn’t have been anything else.”

Johnson, who has been a park ranger for 22 years, worked with mountain lions or cougars in New Mexico, so he was familiar with the animals. Knowing cougars are not common in south central Kentucky, he made a trip to the Nashville Zoo the next day to view cougars in captivity and to talk to the zookeeper.

“Both of the animals at the Nashville Zoo were captive releases. They were pets. They are both males. They are both well over 100 pounds. So, I guesstimated the one I saw was about 80 pounds,” he said. “There was no question what it was.”

National park officials don’t know where the cougar came from, or if there might be more than one roaming through the park.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “It is common for people to keep these animals as pets. It’s not illegal to have them. It’s not uncommon to let them go.”

At one time cougars were common in south central Kentucky, but that was many years ago.

“Their demise pretty much paralleled with the wolf, coyote and the black bear,” Johnson said.

The likelihood any group of cougars could have survived over time is virtually impossible.

“Experts will state the odds of a surviving population that has been remnant from the last century is zero,” he said. “Every expert we’ve talked to says there is no chance of any cougars hiding out in Mammoth Cave.”

But park officials do know some wild animals, cougars, coyote and black bear included, expand their natural range.

Black bears have been sighted in the state, and wildlife officials say they are migrating west.

“They are headed this way,” he said. “They are over in the east central area right now. There will be a time when a black bear will walk into Mammoth Cave National Park.”

There has been more than one sighting.

The most recent sighting was on June 15.

Reported sightings are all park officials have. They have no hard evidence proving cougars are living in the park. Park officials have installed cameras throughout the park in hopes of catching one on film.

“We’re getting a lot of pictures,” Johnson said.

But so far they’ve only been able to photograph coyotes and raccoons.

They are also looking for claw marks on trees, paw tracks and deer carcasses to see if cougars are feeding on other animals.

A cougar’s primary food is white-tailed deer, but Johnson said they won’t pass on eating a turkey if the opportunity arises.

Park officials don’t see cougars as being dangerous to visitors to the park. In a press release issued earlier this month, park officials said the animals rarely attack people and aren’t known to be aggressive.

A committee of park personnel is looking into how to deal with the animals’ presence. Once park officials have confirmation the cougars are living in the park, the committee will then make a decision on what to do about the animals.

Officials with area attractions near Mammoth Cave have yet to alert visitors about the animals.

“Really our visitors are pretty much day visitors. My experience out west with these creatures is they tend to be pretty shy,” said Gary Berdeaux with Diamond Caverns. “Until there’s been a confirmed sighting there’s not a whole lot I can say.”

R.J. Sharp, also with Diamond Caverns, said they haven’t had any visitors to ask about the cougars.

“Most of our visitors are from out of town, so they don’t know about them,” she said. No Diamond Cavern employee has reported seeing the animals.

“I’m pretty sure they would have reported it if they had,” Sharp said.

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