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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mystery Cats Keep on Prowling

Local papers called it “The Thing” – but this was no science fiction monster out of a John Carpenter remake. It was a flesh-and-blood animal, and frequent sightings of it roaming the woods caused quite a stir here in the 1940’s. People began talking about it in the fall of 1945, when a Pittsfield woman walking her dogs on Holmes Road, near the Country Club, spotted a creature she couldn’t identify. It frightened her and her dogs, and she later remarked on the incident to someone at the Berkshire Museum.

The Thing reappeared in early January, when Mr. and Mrs. Holden observed it for about a half hour as it prowled the edge of a piece of woodland adjacent to their Holmes Road property. Their description, of a fawn-colored animal about five feet long, with a long tail, matched that of a panther. Their account piqued the curiosity of Berkshire Museum curator Bartlett Hendricks. No arm-chair analyst, Hendricks headed out to the Holden property the day after their story appeared in the Eagle to investigate some tracks left in the snow. The tracks had been obscured by a light drifting of snow the night before, and definite identification was not possible, though they seemed to be of feline origin. Hendricks said that based on the Holdens’ description, the animal could not have been a bobcat because of its long tail, but that it might have been a small panther.

The panther, also known by the names cougar, puma, painter, mountain lion, or catamount (Puma concolor, in current scientific parlance) has long presented a conundrum for naturalists in the Northeast. These felines were hunted aggressively in the first centuries of European settlement, and were considered to be officially extinct in the eastern United States and Canada as of the late 1800s. However, it seems that the cougars themselves may have missed the memo, as they have continued to be spotted in this region on a more-or-less regular basis since then. For instance, though the last Vermont catamount was supposedly bagged in Barnard in 1881 (its stuffed corpse is still on display at the Historical Society in Montpelier), at least a dozen people reported spotting one on Glastenbury Mountain throughout the summer of 1901. One spooked a man in Williamstown in 1899, and yet another was pursued by a hunter in North Pownal in 1926. These are just a smattering of such examples.

For whatever reason, 1946 saw the beginning of a major wave of interest in such encounters locally. A month or so after a series of sightings on Holmes Road, another man spotted The Thing in a tree on lower South Street. In Williamstown, a pair of childhood sweethearts was chased by another cougar- and it must have been one hell of a chase, for they decided to get married promptly after. The Museum sent sketches of the tracks that had been seen, along with samples of hair believed to belong to the mystery animal, to the Museum of Natural History in New York. The zoologist who answered said that the tracks drawn were indeed consistent with those of a mountain lion, but the hair could not be identified with the limited technology of the day.

Interest in The Thing waned slightly for a year or so after that, until it popped up in Dalton in the summer of 1948. The Mather family twice saw it cross their garden on North Street, and Mrs. Harold Olds saw it behind her barn a little ways down the same street. She described it as a “black beast” that frightened her so badly that she could not remember much else about it. This new version of The Thing was seen several times thereafter in Hinsdale, skulking about in the vicinity of Plunkett Lake, and it was blamed for the slaying of a cow in Peru. These 1948 sightings tended to reiterate Mrs. Olds’ description of a “black beast,” which is quite curious.

While the presence of surviving panther populations in the east is still debated, everyone at least acknowledges that such animals did exist -and still do in the west, as well as a few left in Florida. A black panther, on the other hand, has never been proven to exist. What are usually thought of generically as a “black panther” are in fact certain melanistic leopards, native to Africa and Asia. The incidence of melanism in the puma species has never been demonstrated scientifically. A specimen of one such black panther was said to have been killed in Brazil in 1843, but this report was not confirmed, and this may actually have been a jaguar. The trait of melanism tends to run highest among wild felines living in the tropics or sub-tropics, so the presence of such a creature in North America would be remarkable. Nonetheless, sightings of black panthers have occurred, in fairly high numbers, throughout the U.S. and Canada.

New Brunswick biologist Bruce S. Wright looked at reports of black panthers in the 1950s, in the most in-depth study of the Eastern Panther done to date. He first attempted to explain away the impression of their dark coloration in a number of novel ways, but eventually came to conclude that some melanistic individuals do exist, albeit in small numbers. Making matters even more complicated, though, is the fact that black panther reports often are decidedly weirder than those of their tawny brethren, featuring unusual attributes such as highly aggressive behavior and a fascination with automobiles (some have even attacked cars, if the reports in question are reliable). This, in addition to the fact that such sightings come not only from the western hemisphere, but from such places as the U.K. and Australia, where panthers have never been native, has conferred a certain legendary, even paranormal, connotation to these elusive creatures. They have been referred to on occasion as “the UFOs of the cat world.”

Sightings of panthers, of both the standard and black varieties, have continued sporadically in this area ever since. Encounters throughout New England have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, to the point where there can’t be very much doubt that there are some cougars lurking in the Northeastern forests. Whether they are groups which have migrated back from the West, descendants of escaped or released “pets,” or, perhaps most logically, representatives of an eastern subspecies declared extinct far too prematurely, is a question which remains to be kicked around. One thing seems certain: these “Things” seem to like it here tolerably well, and I for one hope that they keep making appearances.


Anonymous said...

I saw a mountain lion in Williamstown in 1991 near the little league field, I was the only one who saw it and I kept my mouth shut for reasons of not wanting people to panic,plus the fact that people would have scoffed
anyway. I know my wildlife and I know what I saw.

Dan Wojtkowski said...

While working for the State at October Mountain State Forest, we had reports from a ranger of a large tan colored cat with a long tail. We went to the supposed location of the incident and found large feline tracks that had to be a cougar or a very very large bob cat. A cat's print has no claws or nails showing that's how I knew. Peole who worked as loggers in the area also reported seeing cougers at dawn when arriving for work. I totally believe that Mountain Lions still inhabit small pockets of the area, their teritory can cover miles and miles, and they only appear at dawn, dusk or in the night so sightings are rare, but I think they're out there.

Matthew Rose (Adams, MA) said...

Just last year, my friend and I were driving back from a trip to the Holyoke Mall, and we took the road that goes through Windsor State Forest (River Rd. I believe it's called). It was getting dark out and you couldn't see much in front of the car. All of a sudden coming from the side of the road was a black, cat like creature about 5 feet long with a long tail. It looked at the car and then quickly jumped across the road and up the hill, into the woods. We thought we were nuts to see such a creature in the Berkshire's, so I'm glad to hear that others had seen them too!

Mike Bathrick said...

In the early 1990's my wife and I were returning from a concert on top of Mt. Greylock. It was dusk - pretty dark when going through the forest - and our headlights were on. Suddenly a large cat-like creature jumped the road in front of us. It appeared to be about 4 or 5 feet long plus a long tail. It took the road in two leaps and disappeared back into the forest as quickly as it appeared.

I have no doubt that we saw a mountain lion that night. I have been told by well meaning people that I imagined it, but both of us saw it and remember it to this day.