East Tennessee cougar—part one

Published 9:28 am Thursday, May 2, 2019

It was close to midnight when Amanda heard her Bassett hound make an ear-piercing yelp. She turned on her porch light and saw it in her yard.

A cougar was carrying away her dog in its mouth. When her German Shepherd charged it, the cougar dropped the dog and gave two good leaps and was gone.  Her dog was traumatized but lived.

Nathan was remodeling a house when he saw a cougar walk up the driveway toward him. He watched in astonishment as the cat walked into the woods next to the driveway, found a log, and spent the next few minutes sharpening his claws.

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Finally, Nathan watched as the cougar walked into the woods around the house and was gone.

Todd always took his Sunday morning walk after he drank his coffee and before church started. This was his time to meditate and pray before the morning service at his church.

As he walked up a hill, he watched in amazement as a cougar and two cubs crossed the road in front of him. The female cat looked around carefully then gave a leap over the guardrails, her kittens following closely behind.

The above stories did not occur in California, Idaho, Montana or any other western state. They occurred in rural Carter County.

Does Carter County and East Tennessee have a population of cougars? If not, what is everyone seeing and mistaking for the large cats?

Every year, dozens of individuals in East Tennessee claim they have seen a cougar. In many cases, these are described as being completely black, but most describe a huge brown cat that makes a cry like the cry of a woman and has a tail three to four feet long.

What are these animals? Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency does not know what people are seeing, but they are pretty sure people are not seeing cougars or mountain lions.

Until recently, the TWRA stood by a claim that the last mountain lion in the state of Tennessee was killed in 1920. According to the story, a cat attacked Tom Sparks near the Great Smokey Mountains.

Sparks stabbed it with a knife, and it ran away. A few months later hunters shot and killed a mountain lion with a large scar on it where it had been cut with a knife.

This was Sparks’ cat and the last mountain lion ever confirmed in Tennessee. 

The Eastern Cougar was on an endangered species list until 2011 when it was officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Plus, the TWRA states that there has never been a totally black cougar.

According to the TWRA, there is simply no proof of the cats in Tennessee. They claim if the cats are here, someone would catch them on a trail camera, find a tuft of hair, or take a clear photo with their phones.

A variety of internet hoaxes are adding to the problem also because anyone with a good computer and decent computer skills can create a photo of a mountain lion in the east Tennessee habitat.   

Then it happened. A trail camera in Obion County took a photo of a cougar on September 20, 2015. The TWRA verified the sighting and admitted it was a cougar.

Next came a sighting in Carroll County on September 26, 2015. This time a hunter submitted a hair sample for DNA analysis, and the results came back as a female mountain lion with the same genetic code as cougars in South Dakota.

The TWRA was finally getting the proof they had needed to admit the cats were now in Tennessee.

The third sighting came in Humphrey County. From November 2015 to August 2016, Humphrey County recorded six more sightings on trail cameras and submitted them to the TWRA.

They were all confirmed as mountain lions.

It wasn’t long before Wayne County could prove the cats were in their county. Two different landowners submitted trail camera footage taken on the same day (September 4, 2016) of a large mountain lion.

The TWRA also confirmed these sightings. Then all the proven sightings ended, and the TWRA has not recognized any other cougar sightings since.

All of these sightings were in western and middle Tennessee counties, but do we have them here in East Tennessee?

We certainly have the game to sustain them. We have the wilderness area for them. But are there cougars here?

We will try to answer that question next week in this column.