The Dansville Online
  • Cougar controversy continues in NYS

  • Local man catches photo on trail camera.

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  • Charles Thomas began to get a visitor showing up on his property late this fall.
    Shortly after dawn, he’d spot a four-legged feline creature on the periphery of his yard on Cream Hill Road, near one of the Hornell reservoirs.
    Then he started to hear it.
    A high-pitched screaming noise would shatter the nighttime silence on the rural road. The cacophony sounded like a baby crying or a woman screaming, Thomas said.
    “I’d see it early in the morning when the sun is first getting up,” Thomas recalled. “We heard it at night. One of the nights my son-in-law and daughter heard it screaming out behind their house. They live right next door to me. He went out and tried to find it, but he couldn’t find it.”
    Determined to solve the mystery, they set up a pair of trail cameras, one on each property. It took about a week before they captured an image of a feline moving through Thomas’s lawn. Thomas wasn’t sure exactly what he had caught on camera.
    An analysis by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) conducted at the Evening Tribune’s request determined that the picture contained a common housecat. Thomas says nobody in the area owns any housecats that were unaccounted for, suggesting the creature may be a feral cat, which the ASPCA defines as “a cat born and raised in the wild, or who has been abandoned or lost and turned to wild ways in order to survive.”
    Unlike many domesticated animals, most of which would be lost without human support, the cat is never far from reclaiming its place in the wild.
    “Maybe during the hard winters they would have a tougher time of it, but they can definitely survive,” DEC Region 8 Wildlife Manager Mike Wasilco said. “Even when they’ve been domesticated, cats are natural predators. Even when they’re not hungry, instinct kicks in and they’ll kill things, even if they have no intention of eating it.”
    Estimates have put the number of feral cats eking out an existence in the United States in the tens of millions. On the local level, Hornell has struggled with a seemingly ever-increasing cat population for years. The issue has been persistent enough to force city aldermen to look at drafting cat control laws to curb the problem.
    The animals live on the edges, probably unnoticed by most people.
    “Than the general public realizes, yes,” Wasilco said when asked if there’s more feral cats roaming free than people might think. “There’s estimates of how many millions of feral cats there are in the country. It’s just huge numbers. Out in the rural countryside, most of them probably aren’t really feral. They’re probably somebody’s barn cats that somebody sort of keeps track of. Even with most of the truly feral cats, there’s usually somebody that’s providing them some sort of food and shelter.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Feral cats might cause residents and their aldermen headaches, but they can’t compete with their more famous cousins for headlines and people’s attention. The cougar, or mountain lion, has long been rumored to have reclaimed its historical range in New York state.
    Whether they have or not, they most certainly have become the Bigfoot of the state’s outdoors community. Organizations like the Eastern Puma Research Network investigate alleged sightings, and, despite consistent statements to the contrary from the DEC, a portion of sportsmen believe the animals do indeed roam New York state’s forests.
    The possibility seemed to gain some credence in 2011, when a cougar was hit by a car in Connecticut. The young male had traveled 2,000 miles from its birthplace in South Dakota. With its ample food sources and long tracts of rural land, scientists have theorized that the cougar could have passed through New York state on its long journey east.
    For the DEC, that cat may have been the exception that proves the rule. The cougar was caught on trail cameras in Minnesota and Wisconsin during its famous trip, before resurfacing near the coast, where it met the fate many wild animals.
    The natural inclination of someone who sees a feline-looking creature in a place where no housecat belongs might be to assume it is a cougar, but Wasilco says people should keep in mind just what a cougar is — up to 225 pounds of agile muscle, which can stretch five to nine feet long.
    “I don’t think most people realize just how big cougars are,” Wasilco said. “They don’t consider that. They weigh as much as a deer. They’re basically that size of a main body. Their legs are different, but overall the main portion of the body is roughly the same size as a deer. To see these much smaller animals come in and people think they might be a cougar is just a little bit hard to understand.”
    Thomas’s guest has stopped making its visits. It’s been a while since it has appeared on his property, either during the morning or at night. Thomas isn’t sure about the DEC’s determination. The animal he saw was much bigger than a housecat.
    “From the top of its tail to its nose, it was at least five feet long,” he said.
    Thomas’s picture is far from the first one the DEC?has examined. Wasilco said that he has looked at about six photos of alleged cougars in the past two months. Most were housecats, and one was a gray fox.
    The trail camera is an advance that lets anyone become an amateur biologist, investigating what animals are wandering on their land when they think nobody is looking.
    Page 3 of 3 - “With the number of trail cams out there, if we had cougars I’d be expecting to see some actual cougar photos,” Wasilco said. “In other states with a lot less human population — northern Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — they’ve got a couple cougars going through there and they are showing up on trail cameras when they are in the area. If we had a cougar wandering around here, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t get seen on a trail camera somewhere with as many of them as there are out there.”
    There may be one thing both skeptic and believers can agree on.
    Make sure the batteries in the trail camera are charged.