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Midwest Cougar Sightings

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Cougars are moving back into the midwest. If you live here and hunt, fish or tramp the woods odds are that you've seen, or know someone who's seen, a cougar in the last ten years. Since publishing the story in our almanac on the Illinois cougar killed by a train in Randolph County, Illinois in 2000 we've been getting sporadic reports from our readers about cougar sightings they've made. In order to encourage those who've seen these animals in our area to come forward we want to post your e-mails and sighting reports here - along with a map of locations of sightings - so you, our esteemed readers, can get a feel for the magnitude and geographical breadth of this phenomenon.

It is our very considered opinion (and one now shared by the conservation departments of Illinois and Missouri) that cougars are very much alive and living here in the midwest, though their population is very thinly scattered at present.  All the physical evidence recovered so far (in Illinois* and Missouri at any rate) seems to indicate that only young males are currently in residence in our area.  But more recent reports seem to indicate that Missouri and probably Illinois both possess very small breeding populations.

In addition to the map and e-mails several articles concerning these creatures are now in the works - their natural history, the Randolph County specimen, and assorted other articles concerning these magnificent cats. We will also have links to other related sites and some commentary regarding the situation as it evolves.

In the meantime send in any cougar sightings you have had, encourage friends who've spotted them to send them in, and let us know. All sightings will be considered for posting and this page will be updated each month. Don't be shy! Let us know how many are out there and where they are!

Cougar, Felis concolor, Puma concolor
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved.

What is a Cougar?

A large cat, Puma concolor, always straw or tan colored (never black) that weighs from 75 to 200 pounds when fully grown (males are usually larger than females) and can reach up to eight feet in length (this includes the long tail). They are solitary, silent, highly intelligent, extremely wary of humans, stealthy in the extreme, and secretive. Even in areas with high cougar populations they are almost never seen. They can jump fourteen feet straight up, leap forty feet in a single bound, and for extremely short distances can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. Their senses of sight, hearing and smell are superb and put humans to shame. In the wild they can live up to 15 years.

Females begin breeding around their third year and usually have just one or two kittens which remain with their mother for up to two years. Young females establish themselves near their mother's home range. Young males usually wander long distances before settling down in a home range of their own. Home range size varies according to sex - females require at least five square miles of territory; males range over a much larger area. Recent observations in California and elsewhere indicate that cougar behavior is far more social and cooperative than once thought.

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What do they eat?

Far and away their favorite prey is the White-tailed Deer although they have been recorded eating rabbits, dogs and other smaller creatures. A single adult cougar requires one deer per week to remain well-fed and happy.

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How abundant are wild cougars in our area?

Cougars are rare animals here. While once occurring from the boreal treeline in southern Canada to the southern tip of South America and from coast to coast on both continents in between cougars have been the object of a relentless and ruthless war of extermination that for a time extirpated them from large areas of the United States. In 1973 congress passed the Endangered Species Act and included eastern cougars as animals covered by the act making it illegal to kill these animals anywhere east of the Mississippi.

The act also changed their legal status under Federal law from a pest to a game species. As a result every state (except good old Texas) imposed seasons and bag limits on cougars and began actively managing their populations. As a result cougar populations have been making a comeback in recent years with populations appearing that were never even suspected (the US/Canadian northeast).

Even in areas where cougars are considered common they are seen only rarely. Since each cougar requires a minimum of at least 25 square miles of territory to sustain themselves cougars can be considered rare animals even in areas where they are abundant.

Here in the midwest where cougars are only just beginning to repopulate the region they are still very rare animals. The relatively large number of sightings in our area (Missouri and Illinois) is probably due to no more than a few dozen widely roaming animals at minimum to perhaps one hundred at most. This works out to roughly two cougars per thousand square miles at the most optimistic estimate of their current population however there number is growing due to the influx of new arrivals and possible breeding activity in Missouri and (possibly) Illinois.

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How likely am I to encounter a wild cougar?

Unless you spend a great deal of time working, traveling or relaxing out of doors you will probably never see one. Of course someone wins the lottery every day and one might run in front of your car some evening or you might glimpse one in a distant field but this would be the exception. Cougars are shy, secretive animals and are masters at concealment. Unless the cougar is careless or wants to be seen you won't catch even a glimpse. Even professional wildlife biologists who study these animals on a daily basis in areas of high cougar density rely on radio tagging, tracks and droppings rather than actual sightings to study their subject.

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Cougar, Felis concolor, Puma concolor
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved.

Are they dangerous to humans?

The short answer is a very qualified maybe.

In areas with high cougar populations, limited space, and dwindling game they do present a very slight danger to incautious humans - principally children - but since the midwest has none of the limiting factors listed above the danger of attack from a cougar is basically nonexistent.

Cougars will not stalk a standing or walking adult human but if surprised and cornered a cat will attack a perceived threat in self-defense. However victims of such attacks have never been killed since as soon as the trespasser is incapacitated the cougar beats a hasty retreat.

Cougars have a maximum height requirement for prey animals which appears to be around 42 inches. Anything taller than 42 inches (which includes all humans except children) will not trigger an attack from a cat. The one exception to this are humans who are sitting down or bending over. A recent cougar attack in California - an area with a very high cougar population (see Cougars in the Midwest Page) was believed to be the result of a small, slightly built jogger stopping to tie her shoe. The cougar, a female with kittens, attacked and killed this individual because she was not standing upright at the time of the attack.

It should be noted that deer kill far more humans in each midwestern state each year than all known cougar attacks since 1492. So while cougars are a potentially dangerous animal to surprise in the forest your odds of dying in a deer/car collision, a hunting accident, or a lightning strike are astronomically higher. Realistically the danger of a cougar attacking and harming you, much less killing you, are nonexistent.

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Are they a threat to livestock?

At this point in time: definitely not. There have been several reports of livestock attacks attributed to cougars but these are still very rare. Even in areas that harbor large cougar populations depredations on domestic animals are small and are usually the result of either young, inexperienced individuals or old animals long past their prime driven by desperation to prey on domestic animals. Such animals are easily controlled. Besides, long before cougars become numerous enough to be a problem in this area there will almost certainly be a hunting season to keep their numbers below the point where they cause such problems.

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Do cougars ever vocalize?

The short answer is no. Cougars are remarkably silent animals who communicate with one another by scent marking at "scrapes" - areas where cougar territories overlap and where cougars remove litter from the forest floor and then defecate or urinate thereby communicating their fertility, gender and status to other cougars who happen by.

In the earliest days of settlement of this area there were reports of cougars vocalizing occasionally with screams - probably females in heat - but since these vocal animals were the first to be hunted down and killed cougar populations have grown understandably silent. Cougars have been heard to occasionally make quiet grunts, snorts and purrs that are audible at close range but except in the wildest areas of the west cougar screams are a thing of the past.

Any screams or other odd calls heard in our area are almost certainly the result of bobcats and/or coyotes which are vocal creatures.

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Cougar on log
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved.

Where did they come from?

There are three principle theories concerning their origins in our area:

1.) They're wild cats captured by western game departments and secretly released in Illinois and Missouri by our own conservation departments to control the deer population.

This is a popular idea with conspiracy theorists and other confirmed paranoids and persists despite the complete lack of any factual (or even implied) evidence. Absolutely no evidence has ever been produced (or ever will be produced) to back up this notion. Since this idea is patently absurd on the face of it no further attention will be paid to it except to add that persons peddling this nonsense have also reported observing silent black helicopters parachuting spring-loaded crates of rattlesnakes and other venomous creatures into remote areas as well.

2.) They're former captives of human owners that have been released either accidentally or deliberately into the wild.

There have been several well-documented cases of this occurring - especially in urban areas. When Illinois instituted strict new laws regulating the keeping of exotic animals (including cougars) reports of large, free-roaming cats increased. The majority of these animals appear to have been black panthers (i.e. - leopards in their black color phase) and to have been spotted in or on the outskirts of urban areas.

There have also been cases of cougars captured or killed after release by frustrated or careless owners. Such animals are usually declawed, tattooed, collared or show other signs of captivity. There are a few documented cases of these animals having successfully made the switch to a wild existence despite being declawed. However none of the animals recovered so far in either Illinois or Missouri have shown any sign of having been former captives or pets.

The most exciting or alarming aspect of this (depending on how you feel about wild cougars in our area) is that a formerly captive female will meet a truly wild male and breed. Should anyone scoff at this notion it is only necessary to look at the example of Britain. In the 1980's laws concerning the keeping of exotic predators were changed and basically outlawed the practice. As a result of the threat of potentially heavy fines and jail time for offenders, a relatively large number of large predatory cats were released into the British countryside where they seem to have formed a small, and so far self-sustaining, breeding population.

3.) They're recent immigrants from areas south, west, or east of us with remnant cougar populations that have dispersed naturally into our region.

Genuinely native wild populations of cougars are known to occur in four places within the continental US which are (in order of diminishing abundance): 1) a large western population that stretches from New Mexico in the south to Montana in the North and includes all states west of that line; 2) a remnant population in Texas, Louisiana and southern Arkansas which although small appears to be self-sustaining and increasing in numbers; 3) a relictual population in the northeast - principally Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine - which somehow survived the cougar pogroms of the last three centuries and now appears to be slowly extending its range westward and southward; and 4) a truly tiny population of about 60 individuals in the southern tip of Florida which is currently heavily monitored and under close federal protection.

[A possible fifth population is believed by die-hard true believers to exist in the Appalachian mountains and is claimed to extend through the mountains from Georgia in the south to Pennsylvania, or even New York, in the north. While this is of course possible no hard evidence - bodies, scat, kills, prints, photos or early sightings - have ever been forthcoming. All evidence indicates that recent reports stem from released or escaped pets that have established themselves in the wild.]

So where do our cougars come from?

The cougars that are now appearing in the midwest are almost certainly emigrants from the mountainous west - Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana - at least the DNA evidence collected so far indicate that this is the case.  Based on the sightings reported they seem to be moving down the big river valleys - principally the Missouri - and then fanning out once they hit the Mississippi.

[Another possibility, and an extremely remote one, is that they've never left the area and the animals we are seeing now are a tiny relict population of big cats that somehow escaped detection. This may be a possibility in the lower Illinois River valley where reports of sightings have been sporadic but consistent throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries with one individual even being shot in the late 1940's (this was assumed to be an escape from a circus or private menagerie although no owner ever came forward to claim it). This area also held the last native population of deer in the state which could have theoretically supported the cats.

The same may hold true in extreme southern Missouri though I know of no old sightings in that region. For the rest of Missouri and the southern extremity of Illinois no cougar sightings earlier than the 1990's are currently known since it's a safe bet they were exterminated early in the19th century.]

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Cougar mother and kitten, Felis concolor, Puma concolor
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and liscensors.
All rights reserved.

Are they reproducing in our area?

The Departments of Conservation in both Illinois and Missouri respond to this question with a resounding and definite, "NO!". And so far there is no evidence that they are.

However cougar kittens have been discovered in both Minnesota and eastern Kentucky, a pregnant female was reportedly killed in West Virginia, and there is circumstantial evidence of cougar reproduction in Vermont. Recent Illinois sightings of two or more animals traveling together (Randolph, Fulton and Pope counties), as well as at least one report of cubs (Pope county), seems to indicate that cougars may be in the very first stages of establishing a breeding population here.

While I have the greatest respect for the wildlife biologists in all of the states of this region it should be borne in mind that they are scientists and therefore limited by their discipline to what they actually observe and see themselves; nor are they prone to speculate in public as to what they believe (as opposed to what they know). Remember that the conservation departments of both Missouri and Illinois denied the existence of coyotes in their respective states until the late 60's despite persistent and overwhelming numbers of reports of the occurrence of these animals here as early as the late1940's.

And unlike coyotes, which after all are mere dogs and therefore familiar and (relatively) non- threatening to everyone, cougars are in another category altogether. These are - in the general public's mind at any rate - large, fierce, and very deadly Bambi killers and potential man-eaters: mountain lions - with the emphasis on "lion". And while this image of cougars is for the most part completely false or at best overblown, it's hard to spin that image into a positive light. I don't envy the person who will someday have to appear at a press conference to announce that the official state position is that there are wild, free-ranging cougars reproducing here. So the reluctance of state conservation departments in our area to publicize the existence of our cougars, and to downplay this fact now that it is beyond doubt, is easily understood. Cougars elicit an emotional, fearful, gut-wrenching response in most people that coyotes, Japanese beetles and Dutch Elm disease will never even come close to matching.

Since this was first posted there is strong anecdotal evidance that cougars are breeding in Illinois.


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What is their legal status?

The current legal status of cougars in the midwest is ambiguous and in serious need of clarification. Eastern Cougars are a federally protected species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Cougars in our area have been considered Eastern Cougars (as opposed to their western brethren which are not so protected) since they are found east of the Mississippi River.  However recent DNA evidence from Illinois and Missouri show that the cats that have been found in this area appear to be from the actively expanding western population and therefore presumably not protected under the 1973 act. This throws the whole debate into the laps of the respective states.

The state of Missouri has already prosecuted two hunters who shot and killed a cougar and presumably stand ready to prosecute anyone else who does so. Since no one in Illinois has intentionally killed one (or at least admitted doing so) their status in Illinois is ambiguous at best. As things now stand a good case can be made that they are legal to shoot, but don't take my word for it. And God help the poor hunter who kills one and I'm wrong. The full weight of any state's criminal justice system is an awesome thing and best avoided. (Ed. Note: If I'm wrong I'll testify pro bono on your behalf at your trial since there are a number of very good reasons that would justify the act.)

As for the legal positions of Kentucky and Tennessee on killing cougars within their boundaries is anybody's guess. Indiana seems to have a cougar season (at least they grant hunting licenses for them) but they haven't got enough cougars to hunt ... yet. And in Arkansas - well, they're not really rational about cougars down there.

Should you, your family or property be bothered by a cougar the best thing to do would be to contact your local game warden and get a nuisance abatement permit and get a written opinion concerning their status before loading up and blasting away. Of course if you, your family or livestock are attacked, or if you hit one with your car, there is no legal liability attached to the killing. But this is all rather moot since there have been no attacks on humans and only scattered and isolated attacks on livestock. Cougars are still so thinly spread in our area that even seeing one - much less killing one - is a matter of blind luck.

Of course anyone with photographic or physical evidence of a sighting (the body of a cat, footprint casts or scat from an animal) should contact their Department of Conservation immediately.

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Are there black cougars?

Many species of large cats have dark (melanistic) color phases that crop up occasionally in wild populations - notably leopards and jaguars - but no example of a melanistic cougar has ever been produced in North America. Some South American populations of cougar have been reported to produce melanistic individuals but concrete evidence of this seems to be lacking and these animals may be a different but similar species of cat that is mistaken for a cougar.

Large black cats have been reported in North America since earliest colonial times (long before the importation of alien species) but none have ever been shot or captured. At the time of first contact jaguars ranged as far north as Georgia and Arkansas and these animals do produce melanistic individuals but of course it's highly unlikely that they ever occurred in New England where many of the early reports of black cats originated. So unless there's another species of large cat roaming North America that somehow managed to avoid discovery for the last four hundred years reports of these animals must be based on optical illusions or tricks of light.

More recent (20th century) reports of large black cats are most likely black panthers (melanistic leopards) that have either escaped captivity or been released by owners unable or unwilling to care for them. It's significant that reports of black cats increased markedly (at least in Illinois) after the laws concerning ownership of wild cats changed in the 80's. Most recent sightings of these animals seem to describe feral leopards rather than cougars.

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Cougar in field
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and liscensors.
All rights reserved.

What should I do if I encounter a cougar in the wild?

While you should worry more about being hit by falling space debris than encountering cougars in the wild there's a vanishingly remote chance that it could happen. In the first 200 years of our civilization's tenure here only ten unprovoked cougar attacks against adult humans have been reported (see section on Cougar Attacks). The Indians coexisted with them for thousands of years, and while every tribe within their range respected them as sacred animals they didn't fear them. Which should give you some idea of how dangerous cougars actually are. So in the extremely unlikely event that you should meet up with a wild cougar here's what you should do...

If the cat is at a reasonable distance from you - and unaware or unconcerned with your presence - enjoy the sight and by all means get photos! Since most cougar encounters are of this nature (except for the photos) this is the most likely scenario for an encounter.

However, should you surprise a cougar (good luck there!) in its lair, or corner a cat in a building or other location, don't panic. The cat is even less thrilled to see you than you are to see it and is attempting to find a graceful way out of the situation. Make sure the cat has an exit available to it and allow it to leave the area peacefully - as it surely wants to. If small children are with you put yourself between the children and the cat. Cougars have never been known to attack adult humans who keep their wits about them.

Stand your ground and remain erect. Bending over to pick up a stick or a rock can trigger an attack. Cats attack animals below a certain height threshhold which explains why small children are the most common victims of cougar attacks. Never run or let anyone in your party run. Running will trigger the cat to chase and attack the runner and no one can outsprint a cougar.

Try to make yourself larger by partially removing your coat, jacket or shirt and lifting it above your head sail-like so that you present a larger image to the cat. If the cat is staring at you, stare back. Staring down a mountain lion is a bit of folklore that actually works. So long as you maintain eye contact the cat will not charge. So lock eyes with the cougar and don't look away. If the cat's tail is twitching it's nervous and thinking about charging so yawn. This sounds strange but a yawn will immobilize and confuse the cat. This is how cats defuse tense situations between each other. It signals the cat that you're neither afraid nor a threat.

Make a lot of noise. Cougars are very quiet animals and noise frightens them. Wave your arms, jump up and down, yell, scream, kick leaves and shake branches, raise a ruckus. If the cougar refuses to leave back slowly and deliberately away maintaining eye contact at all times.

Finally, if you're actually attacked, fight back with everything you've got. You may get bitten and clawed but you'll almost certainly survive. This event however is so unlikely as to be nonexistent. Should you be jumped without warning (an even more unlikely event than the last) curl up in a ball and cover the back of your neck with your interlaced fingers to prevent the cat from biting your neck.

If you worry about encountering a lion in the forest make noise while traveling. Talk, sing, laugh - in short, give the cat plenty of warning that you're coming. Do that and neither you nor the cat will ever have a surprise encounter. Also, never let small children wander out of sight or hearing while in the forest. Whether lions are present or not is irrelevant - the woods are no place for an unsupervised small child. Poisonous plants, stinging and biting insects, falls, open wells, drowning - the list is endless - are an ever present and far more likely threat than any cat. But if the threat of lion attacks keeps little kids close to their parents in the woods then more power to the cats.

Always remember that you're the cat's worst nightmare come true.

  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • Indiana Department of Natural Resources
  • Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Missouri Department of Conservation
Home  |  Top  |  FAQs   Cougar, Felix concolor   Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and liscensors. All rights reserved
The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung
Some images© 2004 All rights reserved