Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017

TWRA investigates MJ cougar sighting

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A wildlife manager investigated a recent report of a cougar sighting in Mt. Juliet and said the cat sighted very likely was not a cougar.

The week before Christmas Wendy House, who lives off Saundersville Ferry near Old Hickory Lake, saw what she was convinced was a small cougar. She saw the cat in a field near her back yard and said, "It was huge...way larger than a large domestic cat. It had the look, and muscles and movement."

House reported the sighting to several wildlife agencies and on Thursday Russ Skoglund with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency visited House's residence to investigate, take comparison measurements and generally question the wife and mother about what she saw the previous Friday.

"We know people sometimes confuse cougars with other animals, and we got together with our entire Cougar Action Team and looked at her photos before I came out," Skoglund said. "There are distinct markings on cougars, there is a black tip on the tail and distinct black markings on the face."

Skoglund noted these markings weren't visible. He also used a tape measurer and found landmarks and did some comparisons. He even used House's pet cat to compare size.

"I took measurements based on the photo sent to me by Wendy House," he said. "The measurements were for a cat similar to a large house cat. The family cat was present for comparison. It was larger than the family cat, but not significantly so."

Several people in the area have reported seeing what they thought was a "young cougar," as well. Skoglund disputes those sightings, too.

"A young of the year cougar would be full grown, this animal is way too small for that. Whatever it was it wasn't a cougar. I have relayed the photos to my Cougar Action Team and all concur with my findings."

House is still convinced.

"Russ talked with me," House said. "He didn't give an absolute either way, but he didn't really think it was a house cat. He said there's always the possibility that it could be an exotic or large cat that someone has had and let go. So I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Or we may never know for certain."

However, Skoglund did say while it's out of the realm of probability House's sighting was actually a cougar, he noted nothing is impossible. The very fact the local TWRA has a Cougar Action Team is because since 2015 there have been dozens of documented cases of cougar sightings in the Middle Tennessee region. There are trail cam photos in Obion County, a hair sample in Carroll County and sightings in Humphrey's County, Gladeville and even suburban Donelson. .

"These cats are in Tennessee now," said TWRA Cougar Specialist and Wildlife Biologist Joy Sweeney.

She said there's been a major study conducted since 2015, and trail cameras support most sightings of cougars in Middle Tennessee. She said the results prove the cougar is recolonizing the Midwest with a range expansion eastward. She said cougars travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory. The recent confirmed sightings in Tennessee could be a result of this range expansion.

Skoglund said most likely what House saw was a feral cat that had reverted "back to the wild." He mentioned a large Norwegian breed of cat. He noted some of the latest confirmed sightings, about seven, were in Wayne County. He did say generally cougars follow river systems and Old Hickory Lake is in Mt. Juliet.

"Nothing is impossible," he said.

Local doctor relays his cougar sighing in general area

When Summit family physician Dr. John Scott Major read about House's sighting (a few miles down the road from him), it brought back a very vivid memory and in his mind somewhat validated what he reported some 15 years ago. Major also lives off Saundersville Ferry. He built a house in what was then a new subdivision with few houses. He said what he witnessed 15 years ago after dark was something very few people believed. Major is a popular, respected, highly educated veteran doctor and majored in zoology in college.

"Yes, I know a little something about animals," he said. "What I saw that night definitely was not somebody's house pet, unless their pet was a cougar."

He was in his garage and had a high-powered boat light. He heard a ruckus at his back property line that then backed up to dense woods. He shined his light in the area of the ruckus and saw something almost unbelievable.

"It was about 300 feet away and walked toward me," he said. "I would say I shined the light on it about 10 seconds, it walked about 15 feet across from me and into some wooded property across the street."

He said he was too in awe to be afraid.

"I'm an animal and dog lover, and my dog weights near 100 pounds," he noted. "This was bigger than that. The tail was huge and I just noted its size and strength and muscles rippled. It just walked very heavy-like and low to the ground."

He called his next-door neighbor.

"I told him, and I guess it was hard to believe," the doctor noted. "But, when he saw the look on my face, and I was white as a sheet from what I saw, he never doubted me."

Major called TWRA, "But I don't think they really believed me at that time," he said.

"Now with all these confirmed sightings in Middle Tennessee, I guess my report would be more plausible."

Major said he never saw anything like that again. He still lives in the same house, but the neighborhood is well established and built-out.

Major absolutely believes what he saw was a cougar and his stellar reputation in the community solidifies nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

Trail cams mounted at House property

House mentioned a couple days before her sighting her dog dragged a deer head in from the woods. She felt it had the appearance of a mauling. Skoglund said more than likely the deer was hit by a car and ran into the woods and died.

"It was a young deer," he said. "I wish everyone reported things like Wendy. I'm honestly glad people are cautious and paying attention."

House said a friend put up four trail cams in the woods near her home to see if the animal can be spotted again. She's still convinced she's savvy enough about wildlife (there's an abundance on her acreage) to know what she saw.

Writer Laurie Everett can be reached at laurieeverett1@gmail.com

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