It had been a frustrating late April 2005 morning of turkey hunting. John [not his real name] and his father-in-law had conceded that they were destined to return to their Jacksonville homes—which weren’t too far from the densely wooded area in which they were currently hiding—gameless. John would not go home though without a great story.
It was pre-sunrise, but the sky was lit enough to see clearly. John’s hunting partner was the first to step out of the woods into a vast, still untilled field.
“Whoa, stop!” shouted John, who was just emerging from the woods some fifteen feet behind his father-in-law.
Oblivious to what was in front of him, his father-in-law unfortunately turned his head back to inquire as to his concern and missed once again the object of it.
“As I followed him out of the woods here,” John recalled from the same location days later. “I saw it there, crouched low in the field not far from [my father-in-law]. It couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet in front of him, but he didn’t seem to see it. It was huge, I would guess six to seven feet long. It was definitely a cat.”
“At the very moment that he turned his head back to see what had startled me, [the big cat] bolted off that way, covering thirty feet in just two or three bounds in about two seconds,” said John. “By the time I pointed in front of him and he turned back, it had easily cleared a five-foot fence and was back in some tall, dense shrubs...gone...I would guess that it was headed toward Mauvaisterre Creek. I was, sadly, the only one to see it. It was definitely a big cat...a black panther...are there cougars around here?”
Unfortunately for John, the official answer to that question is “no”.
The only “big” cat recognized as a resident of Illinois is the bobcat—and even they are not all that big. They are, by all statistical measures, making an amazing population recovery in certain parts of the state, and certainly one of them would be startling to see for one not expecting a large feline.
“I have seen bobcats before while hunting. This was certainly not a bobcat. Not with the size of this thing. It was way beyond a bobcat. This looked like a dark-colored cougar,” John explained.
A similar beast was also sighted just outside of Jacksonville in the opposite direction of John’s sighting, closer to the small village of Murrayville.
“Three or so years ago, I am positive I saw a large tan cat in a grassy area near my home,” said a rural-living Murrayville grandmother. “It was as large as a retriever-type dog, and had a long cat-like tail. It was an extremely brief sighting and I have not seen it again. However, there are rumors that another elderly neighbor lady’s family had some concerns about her safety because a large cat had been sighted in her back yard near where she dumps scraps. The area is wooded, surrounded by fields and meadows east of Murrayville and northwest of Nortonville. I personally wish to remain anonymous since my family thinks I am a crazy old lady. Of course they thought the same thing twenty or so years ago when I first told them I heard a turkey, and now they are a common sight.”
Gerald Day was residing near Walkerville in the late spring of 2003 when his opinion on the existence of cougars in Illinois was cemented into a “without a doubt certain” position.
“I was looking out a window at a field, when out of some bordering timber stepped a cougar,” Day recalled. “It was yellow or tan and was some two hundred feet away. It had a really long tail and was about the same size as a lab dog, but this was definitely a cat. My family was in the house, so I called to them and got multiple witnesses, but unfortunately we did not have a camera ready before it went back in the timber.”
The cougar (often commonly known by alternative names such as puma, mountain lion and panther) is classified by the Illinois Natural History Survey as being an extirpated species. It is commonly believed that the last free roaming cougars in Illinois were shot and killed in the 1880’s. Most government wildlife agencies maintain that, outside of the subspecies known as the Florida Panther, there are no longer any active cougar (Felis concolor cougar) populations east of the Mississippi River.
Authorities are quick to admit though that there are a number of cougars, both legal and illegal, being kept by individuals as “pets” in Illinois. Though the state’s laws preventing the importation and keeping of big cats were strengthened in the 1980’s, a black market for exotic animals has always thrived. It is to the possibility of intentional or inadvertent escapees from this stock of caged cats that state officials and academics have always attributed cougar sightings in Illinois. That is until everything changed on July 15, 2000.
It was on this date in Randolph County that a chance collision between a tawny cougar and a train gave science their first Illinois carcass to study. The specimen was diagnosed as a healthy male that had a DNA configuration that matches the wild populations of the western states. The Illinois State Academy of Science proclaimed it to be the first documented wild cougar found in Illinois in 135 years.
Four years later, a hunter in Mercer County, near New Boston, stumbled across another dead cougar; this one had succumbed to a wound apparently from an arrow. The body was turned over to Dr. Clay Nielson of Southern Illinois University who specializes in the study of big cats. This too was a large (84 inches from head to tail) male with a stomach containing wild game it had hunted and grasses—a common occurrence in wild bobcats. A DNA analysis for the cat has not yet been released.
When asked about cougars in the state, Bob Bluett, a certified wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that it “seemed likely” that the Mercer County cat was indeed of wild stock and that the two males “fit the profile of pioneering individuals”.
Most male cougars are known as transients, lack a distinct territory and can travel as many as thirty miles in one night. These transient males though can set up territories of 20-40 square miles and will eventually seek out multiple transient females who will remain then within the territory. The monogamous females generally produce one to six offspring every two years.
But have cougars really returned to Illinois? Is there a permanent, albeit small, residential, breeding population in central Illinois?
If there are cougars in Illinois, there is perhaps no one who had a better chance of coming across one in his professional career than Dennis Langellier—and come across cougars he did. Langellier is a former state employee who was daily required to drive from Jerseyville to Mt. Sterling, a path that runs parallel to the heavily wooded bluffs of the Illinois River.
Langellier’s first sighting occurred on a sub-zero January morning in 1994 as he was heading north (just south of Exeter). Not one but two full-sized cougars crossed the road a quarter of a mile in front of him. As his car neared where they crossed, he saw them roughly twenty-five feet from the highway.
“I would guess that each was two hundred pounds in weight. They were tan colored and both had long tails,” he said. “From what I know about them, they are solitary creatures. The only time more than one are seen together is a mother with her young. Though they were both large...full grown...I can only assume that that is what I saw.”
His second sighting occurred six years later during the summer of 2000, not far from the first. It was on Route 100, not more than a half of a mile south of Interstate 72, that another tawny yellow big cat crossed fifty yards in front of his car.
“This cat wasn’t either of the ones I had seen before. This one was not as big...it was still big, just not full grown. Still a cougar though, no doubt,” he said.
“My oddest sighting though was fairly recent. I live in rural Patterson along some woods and a creek. This was a couple winters ago. I was outside working when I see this big cat—all black—come out of the creek bed and jump over my fence and head back into the woods. This didn’t look like a cougar to me, but it was no house cat. It was at least three times as big as a house cat and had a really muscular rear end and a long tail like a cougar. I don’t know what it was, but I saw it,” he said.
Like Langellier, Vic Lanzotti logs more miles on west central Illinois’ back highways than most of us could imagine in his job as a FedEx Express Driver for the counties of Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Macoupin. And like Langellier, he too came across a cougar two years ago, in mid-July, and enjoys sharing other stories he has been told because of his sighting.
“[It was] in Green County, east of White Hall, in the Apple Creek Bottom. The cat crossed the road in front of me and jumped the ditch into corn about five or six feet tall. There goes the ‘knee high by the 4th of July’ saying”, said Lanzotti. “I was reluctant to tell anyone, but I had some friends I trusted and as it turns out a few had also seen big cats. A Lady in White Hall had seen a black cat—cougar size—cross the road south of Greenfield on 108. Another farmer from Carrollton saw a large black cat cougar in about the same area. There is a farmer in Eldred that says a mother and cub wintered in a hollow on his place close to Spanky on the Macoupin Creek. Several people have said the Conservation Department has released cougars in areas where the deer are in high concentrations and places where there are heavy deer road crossings. The same people have said Conservation won’t admit the releases because of probable liabilities.”
It seems that conspiracy theories are inevitable in any situation where unexplained phenomena and the government intersect. Just less than half of all those interviewed as first-hand witnesses and those who related second-hand stories of cougars for this article expressed a belief that the big cats were indeed released by the Department of Natural Resources secretly.
This Roswellian idea of a government cover-up is most popularly promoted by Virgil Smith of Harrisburg who insists that a group he founded, Shadows of the Shawnee, secretly worked in conjunction with a government agency and received grant funding from large insurance companies to release twenty-six cougars in southern Illinois. Calling in to local and national radio programs, Smith insisted that the state now boasts a cougar population nearing three hundred. Former Natural Resources Director Brent Manning firmly denied all of Smith’s claims.
“Repeated requests not withstanding, Mr. Smith failed…to produce just one piece of irrefutable, tangible evidence to support his allegations,” said Manning in 2001. “We believe he hasn’t produced such evidence for one simple reason—he doesn’t have any.”
While Smith has never retracted his statements, as the IDNR has insisted he should, it must be admitted that even if there were a couple hundred big cats in our state, with as reclusive and intelligent as these creatures are, “irrefutable, tangible evidence” of their means of entry into the state would be difficult to produce.
When contacted, Smith declined to give further information on his claim, saying that it might compromise an ongoing investigation.
“A great deal of the information that we have concerning the cougars in Illinois and thirteen other states is considered evidence in an investigation into the release of the same. Our project will be going to the president of the United States, and on to congress, with a recommendation for a formal congressional inquiry. So as you can see, this is very serious and we consider ourselves public advocates,” said Smith.
Dave Holterfield of Beardstown doesn’t put much faith in the “the-government-is-releasing-cougars” rumors though; he insists that they have always been in Illinois. He accepts that the beasts may be expanding their territory, but believes that they have always haunted the secluded corners of the state. To back his claims, Holterfield tells four tales from his younger years.
Holterfield was born and raised “in the hollers and hills of Calhoun County”, a region renown for and often proud of being behind the times. His family in 1958 was still without indoor plumbing and his father, though he owned a primitive tractor, still plowed much of his land with a team of horses. It was in this year that while his father was leading these horses, their reins wrapped around his shoulder, over a hill where the family had planted “taters” that the senior Holterfield first saw the beast. At the crest, he stopped the team to rest and roll a cigarette.
It was in mid-roll that he spotted a full-grown cougar emerging from the dense woods surrounding the farm approximately 50 yards away. The cat most definitely spotted him and his team. Its waving tail and dead stare left no doubt of its awareness. Holterfield reached for his pocket knife, even though he fully realized it would be of little help against an attack from the seven-foot long cat. The real danger to his father though, Dave explained, was not the cat itself, but the reins his father had firmly wrapped around himself. Had the horses, which were oblivious to the predator’s presence, been downwind of the cat’s scent and gotten spooked, Dave might have grown up fatherless.
Not less than a year after this incident, young Dave himself came face-to-face with the cat.
Holterfield explained: “The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was plenty of morning light to see by. I was headed out to the privy, and had just stepped out of the house when...there it was, just sitting there on its haunches. It was huge, tawny and just staring at me. ‘Damn’ is all I could bring myself to say. I ran back inside and woke my dad shouting ‘that cat is out there again!”. He got his gun, but by the time he got out there, it was gone. I’ll never forget how long its tail was.”
Years later, the Holterfield’s had a pig go missing. After a short search, Dave found it...part of it. The entire front half was missing.
“It was not torn apart like coyotes would do, it was cleanly cut in half,” said Holterfield.
In 1972, Dave married a young lady from Hamburg. It was on a trip to visit his new in-laws, while driving on the road from Mozier to Kampsville, that he saw, just lounging not twenty feet of the side of the road, a pair of juvenile, tawny cougars.
“They were half the size of the cat I seen years before,” Holterfield explained, “but there was no mistaking it...they were not bobcats or big house cats. You could see it in their haunches, head and tail. These were cougars. No doubt about it. But I didn’t say a thing when I saw them. My wife and I kept driving in silence for several minutes when she asked, ‘Did you see what I saw?’ I just said ‘Yes, I did’ and we drove on.”
Not long after that, Holterfield moved to the Beardstown area and hasn’t seen a cougar since. But, just a few months ago, while at a tavern in rural Schuyler County, his friend, Joe, walked in looking like he had seen a ghost.
“You are never going to believe what I just saw...a huge black cat. Not a cat, but a black panther!” Joe exclaimed.
Black Panthers in Illinois? If the Department of Natural Resources is denying the proliferation of Illinois cougars, they are downright laughing at the thought of “big black cats” in the state. But don’t be too sure.
Kathy Thompson owns forty-five acres of land situated right between Rushville and the Littleton Township in Schuyler County and insists that she saw the same thing—what she described as a black cougar. It was towards the end of the summer of 2003, approximately at 4 PM when she spotted the huge cat running fast, not fifty yards from her, across her property.
Homer Briney is a down-to-earth, successful farmer owning a large plot of land up on the Illinois River bluffs just north of Beardstown, but his blacktopped driveway is currently anything but normal. Made in late spring after a heavy rain (and preserved through much of the summer through the lack thereof) is a trail of mud prints crossing the drive. Each footprint is just over four inches wide and three and a half inches long. Briney is convinced they are from the feet of a large cougar. Admittedly, cougar prints and dog prints are quite similar, the primary difference lying in the rear lobes of the ball of the print, which were, unfortunately, poorly distinguishable in the muddy imprints.
“I believe there is a cougar living in the bottoms near my farm,” said Briney. “We have the perfect environment for one out here. Two winters ago, a friend of mine was hunting on my property and shot a huge buck. It was so big that he had problems moving it, so he called me. It had started to rain, so I told him ‘Let’s get it in the morning’. Well, the next morning we go to right where he knew it was and it is gone! We searched everywhere and eventually found it some five hundred feet away. All that was left was the skin, the end of the legs and most of the head. It wasn’t ripped apart like coyotes would do. This was different. That was a three hundred pound buck, dragged that far.”
He claims that the same thing happened this last winter to a deer that was hit on the road in front of his house. They found very similar remains dragged into a field near his home.
“The night that these prints were made, my dog (a loved and pampered pug mix) acted really strange, standing at the back door being protective, but at the same time you could tell that it was scared to death,” said Briney. “My neighbors have seen it! They were sitting on their back porch at dusk when it came out of the woods, crossed behind their garden and disappeared back into the woods. They said it was jet black, definitely a cat and monstrous in size!”
In this very rural area, Briney’s “neighbors” live scores of acres north of Briney. Sandwiched between the two homesteads are deep, dense almost impenetrable lowland woods that look far more like the Shawnee Forest than any of the plains of central Illinois.
Melanism, the condition of a furbearing mammal being born with too much melanin and appearing all black, is as rare as its opposite phenomenon, albinism. In a small population with a limited gene pool, the occurrence of such an individual could skew its collective genome and cause the rate of incidence of such individuals to increase. This has been documented in remote coyote populations.
The problem with this hypothesis though is that, outside of a singular photograph from Puerto Rico dating from the early twentieth century, no scientific documentation of a truly melanistic cougar exists. The commonly used term “black panther” is generically utilized to describe two different species, the genetically recessive melanistic phases of the jaguar and the leopard. Neither of these cats exists—in any genetic state—in the United States. The sheer number of reports of big black cats in Illinois and across the Midwestern United States puts an odd, almost X-files-like twist into the mainstream biological discussion of whether the western cougars have permanently migrated east of the Mississippi.
Based on State Police reports and the carcasses found, two facts are inarguable: attracted by our large deer population, transient male cougars do occasionally roam into Illinois from the western states and cougars are certainly kept secretly and illegally in “home zoos”, often by less-than-responsible parties. With these two polar theories of origins, it must be noted though that a person placed in the very frightening and potentially dangerous position of meeting a cougar face-to-face would find the argument over whether this beast’s ancestry was of North American wild stock or of a captive breed South American genome a highly irrelevant and moot point at that moment.
Officially, the answer to the question of whether cougars are really back—having established a resident breeding population in Illinois—must still be “unknown”. The search for them though and the insistent stance from both sides of the controversy have begun to resemble a Midwestern version of the Northwest’s “Bigfoot”.
Maurice Hornocker, the director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute at the University of Idaho and the first to utilize radio telemetry in field studies of cougar movements and travels, said recently, “[Cougars] will hit the Mississippi in the next decade. The Midwest is beautiful cat country, full of deer and cover.”
Ask some folks in rural central Illinois though and they will tell you that Dr. Hornocker’s projection is behind schedule by about a decade or so.