LANARK HIGHLANDS - Yes, you are more likely to see 'cougars' in bars than out in the back 40 acres of Lanark County.
In a presentation by Sean Thompson of the Ministry of Natural Resources in Lanark Highlands this week, it was revealed that while cougars are present in Lanark County, and throughout eastern Ontario, there is little cause for alarm.
"I guess the moral of the story is that it is remote," said Insp. Gerry Salisbury, detachment commander of the Lanark County OPP, of the chances of running into a cougar. "We can't say that, no, there are not (cougars) but... we're not overrun by cougars. We don't want to create a fear-mongering sense."
During his presentation to the Lanark County association of police services boards meeting at the Providence Point retreat centre outside of Lanark Village on Wednesday, March 6, Thompson noted that man's best defence against cougars may well be man himself.
"The normal response of cougars is to avoid humans like the plague," said Thompson, who works out of the MNR's Kemptville office. He added that while cougars can eat turkeys, which are well represented in the county, they are more prone to eating deer and elk.
Part of the problems he has with tracking the cougar is just how elusive they are. Even professional animal trackers, with the added help of a radio tracking collar on a cougar, would consider themselves lucky if they see a cougar once a year.
"One of the biggest problems with this species is that it is a bit of a mystery cat," said Thompson. "They are extremely rare."
Thompson grew up in British Columbia, and when he was exploring in the wilderness beside his home, would often see large cat prints in river beds.
Making it even harder to figure out just how many cats there are is that they have been listed as an endangered species since 2007, and they are listed as "data deficient" federally, since there are so few examples from which to draw conclusions. However, a study in the Canadian Field Naturalists Journal, drawing on research from Trent University, cites evidence that confirms the presence of cougars in eastern Ontario.
"There is evidence to suggest there are cougars in Ontario," said Thompson. "We have no idea how many are out there... it adds to the mystery of just how many of them are in Ontario."
Thompson typically only gets between 10 and 20 calls per year and "by and large, they tend to be something else. It usually tends to be something other than a cougar."
For example, one call took him to West Carleton, where two callers claimed to have seen a dead cougar by the side of the road. Sure enough, he did find blood, but found evidence to suggest it was a deer carcass that had been carted off.
He phoned his two spotters back.
"The first caller was very apologetic," Thompson said. "The other (caller) was adamant and called me everything, and he said 'I know what I saw.'"
Another time, a call came in about the body of a cougar along the side of the Queensway.
"That was quite a treat trying to stop a car on the Queensway," he said.
It turned out to be a deceased dog.
A video from Franktown, Beckwith Township, claimed to show a cougar prowling.
"People were adamant," said Thompson. But after he took measurements, he conceded that while "it looked pretty interesting," there were two things wrong - it was the "wrong colour and size."
Sometimes he will also receive photographs of "cougars" sitting atop fences, which instantly lets him know that he is not looking at a cougar.
"Cougars don't sit on the top of rail fences," he said.
He did get one confirmed sighting of a cougar, right in the middle of residential Almonte - it was a captive cougar, which he visited in the late 1990s so he could see one up close.
"It was pretty weird having a 150 lb. cat rubbing up against your leg," he said. The cat was friendly, he agreed, but he also worried that the cat also posed an escape risk. "It's a nice set-up," he said of the cougar's home. "The animal never escaped."
Sadly, that may be the exception to the rule, since many cougar sightings of are of lost or released cougars that have once been pets.
Cougars, especially young males, are known for their wide range, as much as 1,500 km.
"It'll live in any type of habitat," said Thompson. As for concerns people that eaten-out deer carcasses are evidence of cougars, Thompson points out that "we've got lots of coyotes around here, a lot of feral dogs."
Thompson added that while "99 times out of 100 there is nothing to work with," he still likes to get calls.
"We do document them," he said. "It gives us a sense of what people are seeing."