As a professional naturalist one of the most common questions people ask me is whether or not there are cougars in the Northeast. It seems like everyone and their grandmother has a story about the time they spotted a ‘giant long-tailed feline’. These stories are so common that they are often greeted with the same skepticism as the “big fish that got away” story.
“So what’s the deal?”
Well, what it comes down to is one big mess of miscommunication between the general public and the scientific community. The miscommunication comes from statements made in 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declaring that the ‘Eastern Cougar’ had gone extinct. What is often not clear about this statement is that the term “Eastern Cougar” is the common name for the cougar subspecies: “Puma concolor couguar” which is often taken to mean “cougars living in the East”. This interpretation would be incorrect because despite its name, populations of this subspecies are more commonplace in the Western states.
Now, I am not calling your grandmother a liar by any means. There are many good reasons why individual cougars are showing up in New England and according to The Cougar Network, an organization dedicated to documenting and understanding the activity of this animal, there have been many confirmed cases of cougar presence in the region.
“Well, where do they come from?”
The most common explanation I have heard is that the animals we find in this part of the country are here because they have either escaped or been released from private collections. It is not uncommon for people to poach young animals and sell them on the black market to people with the land and the desire to keep them. This behavior is actually a huge concern of biologists and other professionals that study and protect endangered animals species. One of the dangers of raising a cougar in captivity is that when animals grow up reliant on humans they are bolder and less fearful of us and thus pose a greater potential danger to the human communities they live near.
“So, why does the government keep telling my grandmother that she didn’t see a cougar?”
So, in conclusion, there is a body of empirically gathered evidence that clearly demonstrates cougar presence in New England. As far as we know these animals are very rare in this part of the country and there are no established breeding populations in the East.