The following information is excerpted from an email Mr. Van Arsdale sent to long-time Gazette contributor Jack McShane:DEC staff and staff from other state wildlife agencies have investigated thousands of reported cougar sightings. The overwhelming majority of the cases in which the animal’s identity could be discerned through physical evidence such as tracks, hair samples, prey carcasses, photos, videos proved to be mistaken identity. Common animals mistaken for cougar include bobcats, domestic cats (with amazing frequency), coyotes, dogs, fox and even deer. Sightings without good physical evidence are of no to very little value because of the preponderance of mistaken identity. Sightings with physical evidence will be investigated by the DEC if we are contacted promptly and are available. Any evidence should be documented by photos with objects for size reference (coin, ruler etc.) and/or permanent objects on the scene, such as trees, so the photo can be attributed to a certain location- for instance, a photo of an animal with just grass or the sky in the background could have been taken anywhere.
Cats almost always bury their feces. Unless you recognize the telltale mound and dig for such, you have probably found fox/ coyote scat.
Coyotes and foxes tend to have very bushy tails in the winter, while a cougar’s is not “bushy” at any time of the year.
We have documented cougar mistaken identity by experienced hunters, forest rangers, a very experienced wildlife biologist and graduates of good college wildlife programs.
Cougar (mountain lion, puma, catamount, painter, panther) sightings have been documented throughout NY’s history. The last known wild specimen was killed by a houndsman in 1894. No wild cougars have been documented in NY since then, either from carcasses or other physical evidence (I know of two cases, possibly three, where domesticated cougars were at large for a short while). Hundreds of eyewitness accounts were reported to the then Conservation Department per year in the 1960′s, and has continued through today. Still no hard physical evidence. Contrast that with an intensively monitored cougar population in the South Dakota Black Hills, believed to be about 200 individual animals total. In 2006, 46 cougar carcasses (dead cougars) from this population were documented and examined. In 2007, 57 carcasses were documented. Many of these were road kills. NY has a much higher road/traffic density, even in Andes. No wild cougar carcasses have been documented since 1894. No wild cougar sign has been confirmed, yet such is relatively easy to find in known cougar habitat.
There is always a chance of an escaped or released captive-origin cougar at large. For this reason I NEVER tell people they absolutely didn’t see one unless the evidence proves so. The western US population is heading east. One day they may well be back in NY. They aren’t here yet though (they still have 1,000 or so miles to go) and it is highly unlikely they would make it to Andes before being detected closer to the State border.
If I had to make a bet as to what [Andes residents claim to have ] observed, I’d say fox pups. Fox are much more tolerant of people in general and more likely to allow young near people’s homes. Coyotes and bobcats generally keep their youngsters well away, although either bobcat kittens or coyote pups wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
House cats are also very possible. It may seem ridiculous to accuse somebody of confusing such animals with a cougar, but I have personally documented such many times, as have many other wildlife professionals.
For more information on this subject, Scott suggests the following websites: