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Awaiting the return of the eastern cougars

The big cats, of which there are seven living members, have long dominated my imagination. As the sweet scents of springtime return to the air, their presence looms even greater in my mind as a peaceable distraction from the bitter tumult of the present world. The appeal of sunny themes, neutral and indifferent to the tormented affairs of human civilization, is probably why the golden age of Hollywood unfolded alongside the Great Depression. To waltz into a story, one which feels no obligation to paint itself in the sinister hues of present day, is a welcome escape from the shabby cynicism of modernity.

A special story surrounds the big cats, one which recurs in old artworks and mythologies from Baghdad to Bulgaria. These seven biggest felids in the world—tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, cheetahs, lions and snow leopards—once occupied a far greater range than the regions with which they are associated today. Lions used to roam the Balkans at the time of the Ancient Greeks, while the Caspian tiger used to wander through Persia, Georgia and easternmost Turkey less than a century ago. The story of their retreat from Europe and West Asia is accompanied by their departure from local stories and mythologies. Even the famed Barbary lion vanished from North Africa’s Atlas mountains only in the last century, yet it is considered as distant from the Mediterranean as a tiger is from Arabia.

For New England, big cats seem as equally disconnected from the landscape as in Europe. There is little chance of an encounter here in Massachusetts with any of the two big cats that are indigenous to North America. Jaguars appear confined to Latin America, while cougars are firmly associated with the western states, even if a stray jaguar might wander into Texas or a North Dakotan puma into New England. Only the mighty bobcat threatens these gentle slopes near Boston.

Yet the cougar (variously called mountain lions, catamounts or pumas) is no stranger to these lands. While eastward panthers solely survive in remote patches of the Florida subtropics today, the eastern cougar once occupied the entire east of North America, and as far north as the great coniferous forests of Canada. Such panthers even lingered in the wooded hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut as recently as the late nineteenth century. By the 20th century, their range had vanished east of the Mississippi and their presence in New England had withdrawn to secluded pockets in New Hampshire and Maine. In 1938, the last confirmed panther was shot in Maine and the eastern cougar became a regional cryptid. While the Pacific Northwest pursues its Bigfoot and Lake Champlain hunts its sea monster, New Englanders are left to scan the deep valleys for the elusive puma. And right they are to search, since it is the empty wilderness of the north where the  cougar is most likely to endure in the American east.

I might also add that the likelihood of the cougar’s survival is enhanced by the disappearance of the New England agricultural economy, the sprawling fields of which are now reclaimed by young forests. Potential cougars may be further gratified by the fact that New England’s population, which has plateaued for over 50 years, is increasingly disinclined to hunt. New England’s resurgent forests have already observed consequences elsewhere in the ecosystem: white-tailed deer have multiplied into the millions in the absence of predators and gunshots, causing road accidents to proliferate throughout the region. Other species that had once been extirpated, such as lynx and coyotes, began to encroach from the west and recolonize their former domains by the 1980s. Not for centuries have conditions been so favorable for the reappearance of the mountain lion. 

It is, to my immense displeasure, entirely possible that this mystical creature, whose shrieking calls haunted the earliest colonies, and whose great size earned it the moniker of mountain lion, is extinct in eastern America. Perhaps the specimen shot in Maine truly was the last. This is not to say that the cougar will never return to New England, even if we must reintroduce it via populations in the west, which are already wandering here with increasing frequency. Cougars are enshrined in the local legends, in the natural mythology of the land and its regional culture as well as in the balance of the ecosystem; nothing could so reliably manage explosive deer populations as the cougar. On a final note, how extraordinary would it be if humble New England could count the impressive mountain lion as one of its residents? There are only seven big cats in the world, after all; it would truly provide some ecological wonder, with perhaps some apprehension, to visitors. And imagine what those stuck-up bobcats would say. 

Whether out of necessity, cultural obligation, regional pride or the desire for a heartening story in dispirited times, I welcome the reintroduction of the eastern cougar, no matter if they are rediscovered locally or imported from Florida or Colorado. I passionately await the day when lions return to New England.

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