“A cougar!” I shouted.
By the time my passenger looked, the cat had retreated to the other side of the guardrail and was ambling away from the road.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says wild cougars (also known as mountain lions, panthers, and pumas) have not lived in the Adirondacks since the nineteenth century. The agency concedes that cougars are spotted on occasion, but it insists that they are released pets. Last week, DEC denounced as a hoax a rumor that a cougar had been struck and killed by a vehicle in Black Brook.
The Canada lynx is also gone from the Adirondacks. Two decades ago, DEC released some wild lynx in the High Peaks in an effort to restore the species, but all of the cats either fled or perished. Since then, scientists have been unable to find any evidence of lynx in the region.
That leaves the bobcat as the Adirondacks’ only native wildcat.
I have never seen a bobcat in the wild, but I know what they look like from photos and stuffed specimens. My impression is that a bobcat looks like an oversize housecat with mottled fur.
The cat I saw near McKeever did not look like that. It was a monochromatic tawny—no spots or stripes—and it had a round head and round ears, like those of a cougar.
And, as I said, it was big. Afterward, I pulled over and walked across the road to the spot where the cat had been crouching. I now saw it sauntering into the brushy woods, its hindquarters high off the ground—too high, it seemed to me, for a bobcat.
But here’s the rub: I did not see a tail, and a long tail is the telltale sign of a cougar. A bobcat, in contrast, has a stubby, or “bob,” tail.
When I discussed my sighting with a DEC biologist, he insisted that if it had been a cougar, I would have seen the tail. He also said some bobcats are quite big and some are monochrome.
He’s the expert, so I’m leaning his way. Still, I wonder. The cat resembled none of those I have seen in photos, and I have looked at a number of photos since. And the size, shape, and color all pointed to cougar. Did I just miss the tail somehow?
I guess the bottom line is that I can’t believe what I saw.
Illustration: Cougar Sightings reported to the DEC, 1950-2000, from a 2004 Wildlife Conservation Society map included in the book Adirondack Atlas.