Chapel Hill News

Durham-Chapel Hill residents think they’ve seen a mountain lion

The bobcat (foreground) weighs 15 to 30 pounds and is 30 to 50 inches long with a 4 or 5 inch tail. The mountain lion or cougar weighs 80 to 150 pounds, is 7 to 8 feet long with a tail half that length.
The bobcat (foreground) weighs 15 to 30 pounds and is 30 to 50 inches long with a 4 or 5 inch tail. The mountain lion or cougar weighs 80 to 150 pounds, is 7 to 8 feet long with a tail half that length. Illustration courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

Some folks in neighborhoods along N.C. 54 on the Durham-Chapel Hill border think they’ve seen a mountain lion.

Wildlife experts say ... it’s possible.

Most reported mountain lion sightings in North Carolina turn out to be other animals: cats, dogs, bobcats, even coyotes or foxes infected with mange – the source of the mythical chupacabra.

But that doesn’t 100 percent rule out a wild cougar migrating here or a captive animal getting loose.

“It could be,” Orange County Animal Services Director Bob Marotto said.

“Of course, it could be,” said Pam Fulk, director of the Carolina Tiger Rescue sanctuary in Pittsboro.

“Very slim to none,” said wildlife biologist Jason Allen of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

On a neighborhood listserv, several Downing Creek residents reported seeing what they thought was a cougar.

Caroline Cameron was at her kitchen sink late Sunday afternoon, Nov. 20, when she looked out across a creek behind her home and saw it.

“It was very large,” she said in an interview. “The tail was very long; it swooped down and then curled back up. It was tan with a white underbelly.”

Her husband got an air rifle and looked at the animal through his scope, she said.

“It wasn’t like we got a glimpse,” Cameron said. “We stood there and watched this critter. It was way bigger than a housecat would be. It wasn’t even remotely related to a bobcat.”

“I know what I saw.”

On the listserv, another woman said she saw a creature running near the UNC campus.

“It has spots, (a) long tail and (a) head like a cat,” she wrote. “It freaked me out, and I tried to take a picture but was all thumbs and shocked.”

Tennessee cougars

If the animal is a cougar, it could be a captive animal that escaped or was illegally released. In the 1980s, two captive mountain lions were found feeding at a dumpster in Tyrell County, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Or maybe not.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has had 10 confirmed cougar sightings since September 2015 – the first in Tennessee since the early 1900s.

Most were caught on game cameras that hunters use to scout deer locations, wildlife biologist Joy Sweaney said. The agency thinks it’s one animal or possibly two.

“We think it’s a wild one,” she said. “Male cougars looking for new home territory can travel vast distances,” she said, adding that one cougar with a radio collar was tracked 600 miles.

But without proof, Sweaney is skeptical about a cougar in Orange County. The cougars in Tennessee, which borders North Carolina to the west, haven’t been seen past the middle of the state, she said.

Allen, the wildlife biologist for 11 counties in North Carolina’s northern and central Piedmont, is similarly dubious, at least of a wild mountain lion here.

“That’s western Tennessee,” he said. “That’s a long way from Orange County. The odds of a cat making it from its natural range to Orange County, and not being sighted or taken a picture of along the way, are very slim to none. I’d say it’s almost impossible.”

“A cat that’s 100 pounds, 120 pounds, moving around, eating like it does, it’s going to be seen,” he said.

Secretive animals

Fulk is less skeptical.

Cougars are secretive and would keep to the woods, she said.

“The state authority says they are extinct in North Carolina,” she said. “What we know here is we’ve had people, for years, call us with sightings, particularly in the Winston-Salem/Greensboro area. ... I don’t doubt what they’re seeing.”

And even though it’s illegal in North Carolina, there are people who keep mountain lions as pets, at least until they become too much to handle, Fulk said.

“There are people who do it, and they just hide it,” she said, “which means if that animal gets loose, they’re not going to tell anyone because they’re breaking the law.”

Regardless of what’s roaming the county line, Marotto said he hopes someone can provide confirmation: a photograph or tracks of the animal’s footprints.

Allen agrees.

He recalled a woman who called him hysterical because she had just run over a mountain lion.

He asked her to turn her car around and stay with the animal, excited he might finally have proof of the big cat in Carolina.

He’d barely gotten back in his truck when the phone rang again, this time from the woman’s husband.

“He said, ‘You don’t even need to come out,’” Allen recalled. “It’s a big, yellow Labrador retriever.”

Allen said he never tells people they haven’t seen what they think they’ve seen, and in the long run says “we can expect to see cougars or a cougar in the state of North Carolina.”

“Until you have solid evidence, it is what it is: a report.”

Schultz: 919-829-8950

How dangerous?

In the 100 years between 1890 to 1990, in the U.S. and Canada, only 10 humans died due to cougar attacks. Every year in the U.S., an average of 26 human deaths are from dog attacks, 3 deaths from bear attacks, 12 deaths from rattlesnake bites, 40 deaths from bee stings and 90 deaths from lightning strikes.

If you see one

Never run. Make yourself threatening by standing tall, waving your arms, throwing objects and yelling. Don’t turn away, but back away slowly, and toward shelter like a car or house if possible. Pepper spray may also be effective. If you’re with a group of people, gather together. Dogs and children tend to run and are more vulnerable than you, so pick them up so they don’t become a target. If the animal attacks, fight back! Do not play dead. Report the encounter to local authorities and wildlife officials as soon as possible.

Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency