I was asked by some folks why the wildlife people won't generally admit the cats are in the mountains, even officially declaring the Eastern Cougars extinct not so long ago. After reflecting, and with sympathy, and maybe, some understanding, here's what I concluded: the wildlife officials have got enough headaches as it is. To proclaim the felines extant would bring on, well, let's admit it, ignorant fear from good people, a big outlay of funds, calls to action galore, poaching protection and last but far from least, scare some hikers and no doubt a lot of the tourists. So be it, if any or all of these reasons are correct.
Over the last four or five years, even before, I've made it a point to ask any long-time residents of the Southern Appalachians, especially the deeper parts, if there are still any cougars in those mountains. This question has been asked of probably eight or nine people. Without a single exception, their answer has always been a more or less empathic yes. Does this prove anything scientifically, well, no it doesn't. But these folks answers (and they're not Deliverance-types either, far from it in fact), along with all the other evidence and reports throughout the many years, says to me that, yes, the cats are still in those mountains, and in some southern parts of GA, too.
Now to the gist of the article.
One man- who was an avid game bird hunter, and if not mistaken, college teacher- had a most remarkable, if not unforgettable experience, coming close to what was a wild, fair-sized mountain lion while out hunting turkey one day. The Lion had the same idea as the experienced outdoorsman did concerning what was a pretty good-sized turkey flock.
This occurred in 1978 in the Georgia mountains and the gentleman corresponded with a study that was researching whether the cats were still in the state, I believe, of North Carolina. He was very helpful and I'd like to thank him once again. He never did say if he minded his name being used, so for now it won't be until and if his permission is ever given.
After the following story, there's a letter he wrote to Outdoor Life, a popular magazine covering the study. He also gave me kind permission to publish it on the site some day. This first part is a short read, slightly edited for length, and the second half of it is also slightly edited down for length, and concerns Alabama's Sand Hill area. I hope you'll like reading these first person reports and encounters as much as they were enjoyed here.
I think my girlfriend had one come into our camp site in Raven Cliffs in North Georgia about 1am. We heard something moving through our campsite when the metal on the stove started scraping. We laid still for a couple minutes then heard a thump on the ice chest. Normally I keep the ice chest in the car but we've camped there a 1000 times and only dealt with an occasional raccoon or possum. And I was to tired to drag it to the car so I just drug it about 25 yards away. Anyway after the ice chest thump I jumped up with my head lamp and opened the tent intending to scare off a raccoon. And immediately I could see the glowing eyes. It had jumped up next to a tree on a little hill. I couldn't see much cause the fire was out and I just had my head lamp. But its eyes were 3-4 feet off the ground. I'm assuming it was standing up but i could only see the eyes and a faint silhouette of the head. So I walked about 10 yards closer really slowly and grabbed a rock from the fire ring and tossed it over. It then jumped up in the tree about 10 feet up. And for the first time I saw the silhouette of the entire thing and it looked 6 or 7 feet long because it was wrapped around the tree. At this point I was a little freaked out so I threw another rock. It jumped off and I saw the long tail as it ran down the hill to the little river in the valley. I watched it as it tracked along the water and went up the other hill as I could still see its eyes for about 5 minutes. We ended up leaving because we didn't know enough about behaviors and would it come back. But have been googling for hours. We did get a pic if the claw prints on the tree next to my girlfriends hands but we were so freaked out we didn't think to check for tracks down by the stream. I can send the pic if you'd like. But I've read about bobcats and they say they're around 40lbs. No way it was that small. It was at least 80-90lbs from when I got a good look when it was wrapped around the tree.
OUTDOOR LIFE LETTER FROM TURKEY HUNTER
Dear Mr. D++++++,
I recently read in Outdoor Life magazine of your study of the Eastern Cougar and thought you might be interested in an experience I had. It occurred in April 1978 in the Cohutta Management area, about the northern Wilderness Area in Georgia, along the northern edge of the Cohutta. I was at the northern foot of Buckeye Mountain at dawn in an attempt to make the most of the last day of turkey season.
About a mile from the wood, as I neared the area where my gobbler apparently roosted, I stopped to listen for his morning gobbling; but suddenly, I became aware of a scratching in a deep hollow beside me and realized that the entire flock of hen and yearling turkeys were inhabiting the area feeding - and feeding straight towards me at that.
I hid between a log and a large pine beside an old logging road they would have to cross and arranged my camouflage. In the next few minutes the entire flock of 15-20 turkeys passed around me. Although there wasn't much of a chance the gobbler being among them, a possible shot at a jake gobbler was, of course, still better than only hearing one.
While trying to inspect each turkey I caught a glimpse of movement to the left, about 40-50 feet yards up a slope through thin brush. I immediately assumed it to be a deer, although subconsciously something didn't register just right. Up and about, as to the turkeys, they passed all around me. I saw the movement again and caught the color - too light for a deer and being on a log about three feet off the ground, it had to be a bobcat. Even then, something didn't seem just right. However, I was too excited with being surrounded by turkey to worry much about anything else right then.
I would estimate the body weight at around sixty pounds, give or take. The color seemed darker than the few bobcat I've seen around here and measured out from the rump about 3 feet to the base of the tail. The tail was maybe 2 to 2-1/2 feet long. The weight, as said, was about sixty pounds. I'm basing this on a medium-sized German Shepherd.
While I had the cat in sight, a turkey also spotted it and the flock then disappeared in tw0 directions. The cat stood and jumped off the log in the direction of one group of turkeys. It was a magnificent sight, never to be forgotten. Five minutes later I heard something from that direction between a snarl and a roar. Since then, I've been on the lookout for anything I might find while hunting or fishing in the area; but have seen nothing but one set of what I took to be bobcat or dog tracks.
I told S++ P++++++, a biologist with the Ga. Game & Fish commission who passed it on to a Mr. C++++++ in Layette, Ga:, who passed it on to S++++ J++++++ in Albany who is involved in a study similar to yours. Since that time I've heard of one other sighting in the Cohutta area and two others between Calhoun and Lafayette.
I hope this is of some value in your study as I would recommend you get in touch as I consider myself pretty reliable in the observation of detail and am 100% certain it wasn't a case of mistaken identify. For further reports in this area I would recommend you get in touch with the right person at the Cohutta Ranger District...]
The second half of the post mostly concerned the man's back and forth with other experts and academicians and is shortened due to the correspondences and a Sand Hill's resident anecdote length, plus privacy matters not particularly pertinent to eithers' story concerning the subject matter. It's really about two long-timers' experiences in northeast Alabama's Sandhill region back in 1979, and a year before that, that really matter and are of especial interest.
Our Guest writer continues: Since writing the original letter I have attempted to follow up on two other sightings in this area with limited success. The first took place I believe in the spring of 1979 and a year before involving a very close contact with a cat of the approximate dimensions I described. The cat came across the end of the fellow's pasture while he was working in his garden. He at first thought it was a dog because it was following a well-used deer trail with its nose near the ground. His small dog bayed at the animal and Mr. S++++ approached to within 15 or 20 feet, throwing rocks in an effort to distract its attention away from the dog.
He described it as being in poor condition, thin and with rough, unhealthy looking fur. I have known this man a long time and have found him to be completely honest. He has told me of killing three "panthers" about 20 years ago in the Sand Hill area of Alabama. These mountain lions were black. They were skinned and pictures were apparently taken.
[I've heard from another man familiar with South Georgia cats in the 1950s and '60s that many down there were black, too; one this color even jumped across a dirt road directly in front of his papa's truck returning to the farm in mid-day. On the other hand, a contemporary South Georgia friend says that several he has seen back over the years, with at least two of these sightings at a fairly close range, were more of a brown or tawny color ~ AP.]
Back to the Guest's narrative: Another interesting sighting took place in his neighbor's pasture the previous fall. Mr. C+++++++ is probably the finest turkey hunter in this area, having learned all the skills important to that endeavor. He is now retired and spends most of his time in the woods. One particular evening he heard a cow lowing as she was about to have a calf. As he drove his truck to her across the pasture the headlights struck a female cougar and tw0 half-grown kittens attempting to drag the newborn calf into the woods. Several others in the vicinity have apparently seen the cat.
The other sighting or series of sightings took place over a period of the past few years northeast of Dalton, about 10 miles east of the Cohuttas. Several people in the area have seen the cat, and I have one friend who has heard it more than once. He described it as being unlike any bobcat he's heard. He further mentioned that it apparently "comes through every spring". Could this be the same cat, possibly a female in heat?
[If so, this could indicate a breeding population in the region; this of course, is obvious, and thus very intriguing, whether indigenous or not: pet releases and any progeny can't be completely ruled out with all these reports, but hardly seem the answer. Some have even suggested they may be coming up from the Everglades or other areas?]
And as a last bit of info for this article, I remember as a young boy in the early 1970s a very popular, and in my case, well-thumbed, American mammal paperback book which included species ranges of the time, and in the chapter on the big cats, it actually showed that some cougars were still extant around Mt. Rogers, Virginia.