smile and say growl
By Anne Stanton 9/14/09
Labor Day. Perfect weather. Mid-afternoon. Christian Wiater and his dad, Jerome, a downstate orthopedic surgeon, were in the backyard of their summer home. They were walking to Big Glen Lake where Wiater planned to water ski. Dad had a camera in hand for photos.
Jerome glanced through the sunlit woods and saw a cougar heading north toward the lake along the west shoulder of County Road 675, which dead-ends into a T-intersection with County Road 616. (The little intersection is known as Burdickville).
Jerome dropped everything on the spot, except for his camera. He whispered to Christian, Cougar. He walked into the woods as quietly as he could toward the road, and Christian followed.
The cougar reversed direction and began walking south along the road. The cat paused, stared at Jerome, and continued walking.
When he got spooked by us, he turned and loped off into the woods on the west side of the road, Christian said.
Jerome was able to snap two shots before he disappeared into the woods.
The photo is fuzzy, but shows the trademark back hump, tawny color and thick, black-tipped tail.
When told of the sighting, author Bob Butz took a cautionary approach. He studied Michigans cougar population and its politics for his book, Beast of Never, Cat of God.
Until I go there, I cant say its a cougar for sure; it demands more investigation. But its the most compelling picture Ive seen.
Its the first solid evidence of a cougar since September of 2003, when Eleanor Cummings, a Sleeping Bear National park volunteer, radioed to park headquarters that a cougar was stalking her. It followed her for 20 minutes on the trail and then disappeared into the woods.
Two months later, the park posted signs cautioning visitors of the presence of cougars, but no one has been able to get photos or video of a cougar, despite a field study with motion detecting cameras at five locations within the park.
Usually all we get are verbal sightings; its extremely unusual to have a photograph to go along with it, said Steve Yancho, the parks chief of natural resources.
A Park Service biologist went out Wednesday to determine whether the size of the animal in the photo matches that of a cougar based on the vegetation height. The Park Service is declining further comment until they speak with the DNR Traverse City field office.
Fijalkowski predicted the DNR will likely find some way to discredit the sighting and call the photo a fraud or a case of mistaken identity, as it has done repeatedly throughout the years, despite DNA evidence, he said.
People who have reported the sightings often suffer deep humiliation at the hands of the DNR, he said.
Pat Rusz, director of wildlife programs of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, was out at the site on Wednesday and said the photo was not a fraud and absolutely taken in Glen Arbor.
Rusz, whose group is dedicated to the preservation of cougars, took four hours to take measurements of the surrounding vegetation to ensure that the cougar was not a common housecat. He didnt find tracks in the hard dirt.
Based on what weve done, it appears bigger than a house cat, and Im thinking its probably a cougar. I would say 100 percent sure after weve done the split image photography, but we need to get a computer.
After that, we can tell you the size of the animal. From what were seeing through the camera, weve got something larger than a house cat, and in the range of a small cougar. Maybe something around 100 pounds.
Rusz said when he was in the Sleeping Bear Dunes around 2003, his son saw a cougar off Esch Road on the dunes, and six other people saw it at the same time. Theres absolutely no question there are cougars here.
He expects a computer analysis will be done by the end of next week.
Richard Earle, a wildlife biologist with the Traverse City DNR Field Office, said he didnt find the photo convincing enough to merit a visit to the Wiater home.
It was sufficiently inconclusive with other artifacts that blocked out what I needed to look at, said Earle, saying that he was referring to the head of the animal.
Earle said that of the large cat sightings that hes received as a wildlife biologist in Traverse City and Houghton Lake, such as a track or legible photograph or carcass, every single one has been an instance of mistaken identity.
If its not a cougar, what could it be?
Im not prepared to say; theres another picture out there, and Id like to see what the other picture is like. I like to work with facts rather than opinions. Ill withhold judgment until Ive seen everything.
Christian said the second photo wouldnt bring any more clarity to the animals identity because its very difficult to see the cougar.
However, he did forward it onto Earle. He added that the two photos are still in his fathers digital camera and available for examination.
Christian said he hopes the DNR will put an effort into a field investigation and collaborate with the Park Service.
Mr. Earle talked to my father on the phone, and he was borderline impolite, and he doesnt understand why Mr. Earle would behave that way. Its slightly odd.
Christian also reported the cougar to the Leelanau County Sheriffs office.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT?
The cougars appearanceif it is a cougaris sure to cause a stir in this upscale summer resort where cabins are nestled along the beach and across the road. But Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said people should not panic
He said that its important to take precautions such as not allowing children to play alone. If you do encounter a cougar, never run and never turn your back. Look into its eyes.
Christian believes that this is the cougars second visit to his familys home. In July, he saw an animal flashing by and heard a deer scream at about 8:30 at night. He ran to the back of a guest house and saw a dead fawn with a bloody head. He guesses that it might have been a cougar, but doesnt know for sure.
The animal appeared to have crushed the skull with its jaw. Butz said that cougars dont crush skulls, but rips the flesh at the back of the head or throat.
Christian believes a cougar might be attracted to the area because of the steady parade of deer that goes by his family cabin and guest house, as well as the spring-fed ponds behind the house.
Donny Peplinksi, a neighbor and avid hunter, said there is no doubt in his mind that Christian saw a cougar.
Itll be interesting to see what they do with it. Its right in a neighborhood for sure.
Christian, a Los Angeles based filmmaker and screenwriter, views this as a tremendous opportunity to present evidence that cougars exist in Michigan.
Its my sincere hope that people will not react to this with a knee-jerk desire to destroy this animal. There might be people who would want to kill it; I am not one of these people. Quite the opposite. These are endangered species and require the protection that comes with that distinction.