Saint John, New Brunswick

The story below was taken from the Times Globe, Wednesday, August 26/98

Big Cat Tales

By Brian Kemp
Times Globe staff writer

   Glimpses near a roadside or in the bush. A sleek shape moving in the distance. A shrill cry echoing through the trees.
   People who have spent time in New Brunswick's woods have reported seeing and hearing panthers for decades. But the tales they tell are like ghost stories: Panthers are elusive creatures, and so is any proof that they are in our forests.
   Like the wolf, eastern panthers once called New Brunswick home, but haven't been here since the turn of the century because they were killed off and habitat was cut down. Most experts agree panthers weren't here in great numbers, but they were here.
   Every year, residents from Saint John to Bathurst call wildlife officials to report a sighting. Then scientists and Natural Resources officers determine they likely saw a bobcat, a lynx a house cat or some other wild creature.
   But it's not just woodsmen and hunters deep in the woods who are seeing panthers nowadays.
   The signs that one of the great cats lives among us are growing stronger and more frequent, especially on the East Side of Saint John.
   This maybe the great comeback story - but a comeback story with a twist.
   Scientists says it's no longer a question of whether the panther is in New Brunswick, but a question of how many there are and where they came from.
   The evidence is mounting that panthers live in our backyards and in our forests.
   Just ask Constable Gordon Brown, a 27-year veteran of the Saint John Police Force. Just ask the residents in the Latimore Lake area, some of whom are worried about the safety of their children.
   Early last Thursday morning, Const. Brown was patrolling in his. cruiser on the East Side on Eldersley Avenue near Latimore Lake when he spotted what he thought was a kitten or house cat on the road.
   Seconds later, two more appeared from the bushes near the roadway. One walked down centre line, then all three went into the bushes.
   What Const. Brown saw next surprised him.
   He had decided to turn the police car around and take another look at the situation. As he drove, he kept his eye on the rear-view mirror. Out of the bushes walked a big cat, golden brown, the size of a Labrador retriever, walking smoothly, not more than a 100-metres away.
   "You could strap a glass of water on its head and not see a ripple, it was walking so smooth," Const. Brown said.
   "It was a massive cat."
   The cat was in a dip in the road, so the officer could only see its top half. He could not say whether it had the long tail which is characteristic of a panther, but is sure it was one.
   Const. Brown turned the cruiser around and pulled up to the spot where the cats disappeared into the thick woods, but saw nothing.
   "There are woods all the way past Sr. Martins," he said. "You could probably go to Nova Scotia through there."
   He checked nearby homes, which are only 50-metres or so from where he saw the cats, to see if any children were out playing, but none were. Then he reported his sighting to the Department of Natural Resources and was told the cats should pose no danger except to small game and other animals.
   This is the first panther that Const. Brown has run into during his tenure on the force, but not the first animal.
   "I've seen deer, moose and coyotes," he said.
   Earlier this summer, he said, a couple of Saint John police officers who are hunters familiar with the animals native to our area spotted what they believed to be a wolf near the airport. They reported what they saw to the Department of Natural Resources.
   "It's like living in the jungle," Const. Brown said.
   Chris Graham would likely agree.
    The same day as Const. Brown's sighting, Mr. Graham and Jennifer McNulty were walking a trail leading to a lake in the Garnett Settlement area, perhaps 10 kilometres from the spot where Const. Brown had his encounter.
   After they turned back on the trail, Mr. Graham - a hunter who has done some trapping - noticed rather large prints in the mud. "The tracks weren't there on the way in," he said.
   He wasn't sure what made the tracks, which measured more than four inches across. "It was not a fox, coyote, bobcat or lynx," he said.
   Later, as they were walking back to their car, the couple heard an animal off in the woods shrill loudly twice.
   When Mr. Graham returned home, he checked a reference book and discovered that the prints he saw resembled those of a panther and the shrill noises that he had heard could have been made by a panther.
   Mr. Graham went back the next day and took pictures of the prints and found scat (animal droppings) which he believed were from a panther and took them to the ranger station in Hampton.
   "These are cougar pictures," he said.
   'The rangers "were quite excited" by the evidence they saw, he added.
   Panthers are sleek, efficient hunters that can bring down a deer, or even a moose.
   They are one of the top predators, not including man, wherever they live. They feed on white-tailed deer, porcupines, beaver, squirrels, mice and birds. They don't often attack humans, but have been known to do so.
   Male panthers weigh as much as 70 kilograms, while females are smaller, sometimes reaching 45 kilograms.
   Panthers, or cougars as they are known in Western North America, once ranged from the tip of Chile to the Yukon on both sides of the coast.
   Panthers are thriving on the west coast, but the documented eastern population has shrunk to only 60 or 70 are left in Florida. Classified as an endangered species in the province, they are solitary animals except when mating or raising kittens.
   Rod Cumberland, provincial wildlife biologist, said it was highly unlikely that Const. Brown saw a panther, "especially in an urban area."
    For seven years Mr. Cumberland "traipsed around the province" looking for signs of the cat.
   But none of the reported sightings turned out to be a panther.
    Gerry Parker, a retired scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service who recently published a book, "The Eastern Panther," agreed with Mr.Cumberland's assessment.
   Mr. Parker suggested Const. Brown likely saw a bobcat.
   Despite all of the sightings there is no solid evidence, such as a carcass or roadkill, that there is an established panther population in the province, Mr. Parker said.
   Mr. Parker said there are panthers in the province, but they have probably escaped from wildlife collectors in Maine or elsewhere in New England, a hotbed for illegal animal collecting because of lax laws.
   He said the panthers are most likely passing through area, adding, "Panthers can easily travel 100 miles."
   As a result, estimating the big cat's population in the province has been as elusive as proving its presence.
   The Canadian Wildlife Service gets 20 to 25 calls from people in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick per year but has yet to receive concrete evidence panthers are calling this area home.
    Seven years ago, a Department of Natural Resources biologist collected scat in the Juniper area which tests showed contained panther hairs. A sample of that scat has been sent to California for examination.
   Mr. Parker acknowledged that Const. Brown's sighting of a mother with kittens raised some interesting possibilities. He suggested the province was a good place for the panthers to reestablish themselves, providing a good mix of forest and food prospects such as deer.
    "We know there are cougars here," said Don McAlpine, the curator of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum.
    He said many biologists who thought that the panther was not present in New Brunswick have changed their tune in recent years due to the amount of sightings and other evidence such as hair was found in Juniper.
    He too believes the panthers escaped or were released by collectors who may have decided their "pet" was growing too big to handle.
   Karen Lunn is preparing to move into a mini-home on Latimore Lake Road.
   Her 21-month-old son Trevor stands looking into the thick bush behind the trailer.
   Mrs. Lunn, who also has a nine-year-old son, said the family spotted some tracks near the trailer last month and believe they were made by a panther.
   "I'm worried about the kids," said Mrs. Lunn, adding that there are a number of young children who live in the area.
   When asked about panthers, Rose Lunn, who lives in a house just up from Karen, said, "Everyone sees them."
    But Mr. Parker said residents don't have to worry about the animals, saying they had more of a chance of dying from a bee sting than being killed by a panther.
    Looking up Eldersley Avenue where Const. Brown saw the big cat, Fred Gray is no skeptic on the subject.
   The long-time resident said he has been seeing panthers in his area for the past 40 years or so, perhaps as many as 15 times.
   "They don't bother anyone," he said he met up with a panther on the street in the middle of the night while walking home from work. He said the panther looked at him and them moved on.
   He said he doesn't tell people about his sightings anymore.
   "People just don't believe you. It's the same as seeing a flying saucer."

Further Proof!
Speaker years ago had slides of three eastern panther dens in our area

Story by Willis Flynn
Saint John, N.B.

   I am prompted to write after reading a number of articles on the eastern panther and the many sightings in our picture province.
   What surprises me is that what I have to say has not been reported before.
   To begin the tale, I am now nearing my 69th birthday. What occurred happened when I was in my early 20s, so I may be somewhat vague on a minor point or two, but the gist of the incident remains quite clear in my memory.
   My two friends and I attended a meeting of the Fish and Game Association. This meeting was convened at the 100F hall on, I believe, Germain Street. The purpose of the get-together was to listen to a gentleman from the State of Washington who was a recognized authority on the various types of panthers in North America. His name eludes me, as do many manes, due to the passage of time, but the facts are quite clear to this day.
   First of all, the guest speaker's address was accompanied with slides shown on a projector. This man, via the screen, was to show the audience evidence of three panther dens in this area of the province. I can remember two of the locations, the first being just outside the city at Coldbrook and the second in my memory was in the Musquash area.
   What was of interest was the fact that the slides were taken when the ground was covered with a number of inches of snow. This allowed the speaker to show very clearly the one identifying mark of the big cat that is duplicated by no other animal, that is the distinct mark of the heavy tail in the snow with each step.
   If this is not proof for the most sceptical we were than shown a large clipping from Nova Scotia newspaper - Halifax, I believe. The story accompanying the picture explained that the man portrayed in the snapshot was visiting a member of his family in New Brunswick. He decided to go hunting and had a very strange encounter. Thus, the caption above the picture read, "Strange beast shot in New Brunswick woods."
   The photograph depicted a man standing in a open barn door and hanging on his immediate left was a large eastern panther. I believe the year was 1929, long after the animal was declared extinct in the province. I have no doubt that this picture is in archives in Nova Scotia, Halifax perhaps.
   I have spent a great deal of time in the woods. Once, while traversing a path on the side of a large hill, I heard the most ungodly noise coming from the opposite side of this small mountain. The noise could have been only emanated from a confrontation between a bear and a very large feline. I had no doubt that the two were disputing who had the right of way. I never determined the victor, as when the area of the argument was reached all was quiet.
   As a further anecdote, the son of a good friend of mine had an encounter in a field. The cat in this instance was of the black variety and darted into the adjacent woods upon seeing the person in question.
   The one thing that we all agree on is that the panther is one of nature's most shy creatures and will remain as secluded as possible at all times.
   But, if their natural habitat continues to be decimated at the current rate and the population continues to increase, then they, like the the black bear for one, will encroach upon populated areas.

Click here for more on the Eastern Cougar Mystery.