Guest post by Clea Simon
The dodo is extinct. The passenger pigeon as well, although some intriguing backward-engineering of DNA may soon change that. The Eastern cougar? That’s another matter. Last month, amid growing community concern, repeated sightings of a large, tawny cat just outside of Boston have made what was once a closed issue open to debate.
According to most wildlife experts, the Eastern cougar – also known as a mountain lion or a puma – is gone. Hunted by humans as its woodland territory was gobbled up by development, the large dun-colored cat (scientific name: Puma concolor couguar) was deemed extinct in 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The large and graceful cat, once the alpha predator from South Carolina through New England, was done in by the new alpha: humans.
The Eastern cougar – extinct, or not?
Or was it? That’s the question that Pru Marlowe has to answer in her fourth outing, Panthers Play for Keeps, when a young woman’s body is found, deep in preservation land, seemingly mauled by a large cat. Since Western Massachusetts has no other native large cats – bobcats are significantly smaller – the residents of Beauville believe that a cougar must be to blame, and they set out to hunt a “man eater.” Pru knows that not only is such a scenario highly unlikely, the community response is dead wrong. If a cougar exists, it should be protected, not slaughtered. But the hunters of Beauville are out for blood.
This situation is fiction, the setting for a murder mystery that will engage all of Pru’s detective and animal behavior skills, as well as her special sensitivity to her non-human colleagues. But as this fourth Pru Marlowe pet noir prepared to launch, a scary news story began to develop. In Winchester, Mass., a town just outside of Boston much more suburban than Pru’s fictional Beauville, residents began to file reports of a mountain lion. A cougar – a wild beast living a little too close to humans for our (or its) comfort.
Local police have responded to sightings, sending out reverse 911 calls to warn residents when the large, tawny beast has been spotted crossing a road or slinking through a suburban backyard. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has been called in. Photos of a paw print show a three-lobed paw pad and heel – consistent with a large cat.
Truth or fiction?
As of this writing, the animal itself remains at large, and opinions are divided. The police stand behind the sightings, while Fish and Wildlife have cast doubt on even the paw print, arguing that the animal that left the print may have stepped on its own print, enlarging it.
There are, of course, other possibilities. There have been recent cases in New England of mountain lions in which the predator in question proves to be an interloper. One wild cat’s DNA, taken after the poor animal was hit by a car, proved it to be a Western cougar. Some theorize that the animal was an illegal pet that had escaped, only to meet a sad end. Others that the Western animals have begun to migrate, drawn by the abundance of deer and other game to be found here. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.
Or maybe the tawny cat is a figment of the townspeople’s imagination, the paw print a doubled-up mistake, viewed through panicked eyes. It is possible that we’ll never know. If there is a wild cat out there, it may simply disappear, leaving behind the fuss and bother of a scared human community to seek out quieter woods where it can live out its life. It may be that New England’s former alpha predator has learned enough about its new place on the food chain to respond with discretion. One more cat, and one more mystery, vanishing into the woods.
Coming Friday: A review of Panthers Play for Keeps
Clea Simon’s latest mysteries are Panthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir (Poisoned Pen Press) and Grey Howl: A Dulcie Schwartz Feline Mystery (Severn House). She can be reached at http://www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.
Photo at top of post: Wikimedia Commons, photo of pawprint Winchester Police via Boston Globe