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Leelanau County sighting: cougar or housecat?

Anne Stanton - September 28th, 2009
Leelanau County sighting:
Cougar or housecat?

By Anne Stanton 9/28/09

On Labor Day, Jerome Wiater, a respected orthopedic surgeon, took a picture of what he believed to be a cougar about 75 yards from the edge of his backyard.
Dr. Wiater and his son, Christian, saw the animal in Burdickville sauntering along County Road 675, just before it intersects with County Road 616.
But was it really a cougar?
Both the state Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, an advocacy group for the preservation and protection of cougars, completed their analyses of the photos this week.
Here’s what they said:

HOUSE CAT!
Mike Borkovich, a conservation officer of 30 years and acting sergeant with the state DNR, said his analysis shows the animal was a housecat.
Borkovich said that a close look at the photo reveals that there are vertical stripes on the cat. It also has a dark tail and black legs; a real cougar has much larger hams (thighs) and shoulders and darker coloring on the body. For the photo analysis, Borkovich, who is six foot five, positioned himself in the same spot as the cougar and had a colleague take a picture from where Wiater shot the photo. The branch, which is well above the animal in the Wiater photo, is slightly below his knee, proving the animal was the size of a housecat, he said.
Borkovich said the Wiaters were well-intentioned, and there is no evidence of fraud.
“I just saw the cat, and it appears to be a case of mistaken identity. From a distance it’s hard to judge,” he said.
But he is concerned that the DNR is continually swamped with reports of cougar sightings, when the photos are simply taken off the Internet and photo shopped.
Most recently, there was a report that someone shot and killed a treed cougar in Mesick. It was the exact same report and photo of a cougar shot in New Mexico in April of this year.
Borkovich said the DNR is stretched thin and can’t afford to spend time on pursuing false reports.
“If someone creates false evidence from another area or doctors photos or conducts any other fraudulent activity, that’s a false police report. If there’s criminal intent, that’s a false police report. We might consider filing charges in the future,” he said.
Having said that, he added the DNR is interested in anyone who has photographic or video evidence of a cougar. The agency is more doubtful about paw prints or scat, because that type of evidence is easily falsified.
“There is no conspiracy on the part of the DNR to hide cougars,” he said. “We’re just worn out by the day-after-day claims and it takes a lot of time and resources we don’t have right now.”

SMALL COUGAR!
Pat Rusz, a researcher with the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said that his measurements prove the animal was a small cougar.
Rusz, who holds a doctorate in wildlife biology, took a different approach in his analysis in order to avoid any differences that might occur when using a different camera and a different zoom. “Since we do not know and cannot replicate the exact zoom that Jerome had on his camera, we used split screen imagery on a computer,” he said.
Rusz said he took a 3 x 4-foot piece of cardboard and placed it where the cat was standing. He then took a photo from where Wiater stood.
The analysis involved comparing the original photo to the later photo using the cardboard prop. Both photos were enlarged to exactly match in size, using a known object as the reference point—in this case, a telephone pole and a tree. The length of the cat was then measured, and then overlaid on the four-foot wide cardboard.
Rusz measured the cat from the tip of its nose to the end of its body (excluding the tail) instead of focusing on the height. That’s because he determined that the animal was standing in a shallow ditch alongside the road since only part of the animal’s legs are visible in the photo.
“After we determined it was partially in the ditch, we talked to Jerome and he said it definitely went into the depression when he snapped the picture.” By focusing on the animal’s length, there is no uncertainty, he said.
Rusz said the length of the animal was, at minimum, between 27.1 and 28.5 inches, depending on whether using the telephone pole as a reference or the tree. “The cat was not exactly perpendicular to the camera. So when you turn the cat at even a slight angle, you necessarily get an underestimate.” The average length of a housecat is 18 inches, Rusz said. “Some place in the world there might be a cat that is 28 inches long, but I’ve never heard of one.”
In terms of the stripes, Rusz said the cat is colored consistently with a cougar. “We looked at the photo on a really good computer, and we didn’t see any stripes. We saw a shade line from the tree, but we didn’t see stripes.”

 
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