Cougar sighting worth believing|jon_downes|jon@cfz.org.uk|11/03/03 at 12:10:56|jon_downes|xx|0|217.43.51.190|Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch
Cougar sighting worth believing
GARVEY WINEGAR
Oct 29, 2003

I haven't heard of a mountain lion (cougar) sighting in Virginia for several
years. Until now.

Before this, the last sighting came from an old girlfriend, still living in
the Haven of Rest Motor Court and Trailer Park in Dump Truck, Ala.

My guess is she hoped I'd come riding up in a white limousine and take her
away from all that. But I didn't believe her tale. After all, she'd adroitly
twisted the truth when it suited her before the mountain-lion-at-the-window
story.

By contrast, I believe the following sighting.

Sandy Johnson, now 75, and her late husband, Ed, were living at the time on
their 10-acre homestead near the town of Forest. The year was probably 1997,
she said. From the window, they could see Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge
Parkway in the distance.

Late one evening, they heard what Mrs. Johnson describes as a "loud scream"
in the yard. They flipped on floodlights. Nothing alive was in the yard,
although a bucket filled with water had been flipped over. The couple
retired for the night, but the sound she'd heard kept ringing in the
corridors of Mrs. Johnson's memory.

"I'd heard that same scream as a little girl in Arkansas," she said. "My
grandfather said it was a panther or 'painter' [other regional names formountain lions]. He used to hunt them, but he never found one."

After they'd gone to sleep, Mrs. Johnson was awakened by "not a growl
exactly, but a sort of guttural sound" coming from the yard where they'd
heard the scream.

This time when the couple flipped outside lights on, a large cat with a
reddish/tan body and long tail was caught in the spotlight.

"I'd estimate it was 5 feet long, including the tail," she said. The cat
appeared mesmerized briefly by the strong light. "We probably watched it for
20 seconds or more," she said.

Then it dashed for cover.

"I've never forgotten the way it moved," Mrs. Johnson said. "It didn't jump.
It sort of glided out of sight."

The Johnsons didn't tell anyone about their nocturnal visitor.

"My husband was very ill at the time," said Mrs. Johnson, "so other things
had a higher priority."

In fact, her son, Wade Johnson of Richmond, hadn't heard the story until a
few days ago when he was visiting his mother at Buckingham Wood off
Midlothian Turnpike. Wade was telling his mother about a bobcat (or wildcat)
that he'd seen in Bon Air a few years ago. Mrs. Johnson had just read in
"Reader's Digest" about a cougar incident in Boulder, Colo., and that caused
her to recall the incident she and Wade's father experienced that night some
half a dozen years ago.

"I was very excited about it, but she seemed unconcerned," said Wade. He in
turn relayed to me what he calls "another one of those unconfirmed sightings
of big cats in Virginia."

I talked with Mrs. Johnson, and as I said earlier, I believe what she and
her husband saw was a cougar or mountain lion.

Not only was her description field-guide perfect, but of all the cougar
sightings that have come my way in more than 30 years of outdoor writing,
the most numerous and believable came from the Bedford County/Peaks of Otter
area.

A park ranger is supposed to have watched one for half an hour as it lay on
a ledge just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1970s. But other, less
frequent, reports come from all over. My predecessor at the Richmond
Times-Dispatch, the late Max Ailor, once told me he saw one of the big cats
in the Bath/Highland county area.

My conviction has always been that a few - repeat, a few - cougars live in
the state, off and on.

Bob Duncan, chief of the Wildlife Division of the Department of Game and
Inland Fisheries, said one time: "If there are cougar in Virginia today,
they aren't remnants of the Eastern cougar that was native to the state, but
pets that someone turned loose."

He's probably right. Somebody gets an illegal cougar kitten - cute little
thing, but with an attitude - and when it reaches 5 feet long and has
devoured Poo Poo the Poodle, the disillusioned owner takes the cougar to a
remote area and turns it out with a kick and a final "Begone, beast!"

Deer are the main item on a cougar's diet. Today, there's a record deer
population in the state. A mountain lion would have no problem finding
enough food to thrive - even to exchange marriage vows and have children -
provided someone dumped another big cat of the opposite sexual persuasion in
the neighborhood.||