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Writer's Corner- New Brunswick

Seen in profile or under light conditions, even light-coloured cougars can appear dark.
Encounters with the Eastern Cougar
By Barry L. Hatt

    There is something almost magic about growing up hearing that there are actual wild cats living in your small part of the world. Seldom seen by humans, these fleeting ghosts open wide vistas in the imagination of rural New Brunswickers.
    For more than fifty years the Department of Natural Resources and Energy listed the last confirmed sighting of the eastern cougar as 1939. Recent sightings as well as hair samples have shown that the cougar still calls New Brunswick its home. The fact that it took that many years to prove that the eastern cougar still resides here shows their great resiliency and need for privacy.
   My very own cougar stories began as a boy growing up in L'Etang, Charlotte County, just south of St. George on Rte. 172. L'Etang is one of those small rural communities that you could easily miss if you blinked while passing through. L'Etang also claims one of the deepest natural harbours in Canada, which now protect many aquiculture sites. In the early 1960s fishing and lumber were the main stay of employment.
    My first encounter with a cougar was really quite simple. I had awakened from a sound sleep and was trying to go back to sleep in the wee hours of the morning when I heard a distant, terrifying scream. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and a chill ran the length of my body. I didn't sleep very soundly for the rest of the night and when I explained to my mother what I had heard the next morning she explained that I had probably heard a cougar scream.
   A cougar scream is very distinctive but hard to explain. To me it is best described as a bonechilling scream for help from a mother or a child, magnified 10 times.
   My next encounter with the cougar was much more personal and even more frightening. It was late summer in 1964. There were four of us who were going to sleep in the hay mow in Wayne Patterson's grandfather's barn; Eugene Anderson, Blaine Hatt, Wayne and I. It was all innocent enough until someone got the idea that we should make a late night call on Bev Leavitt's garden. Bev always had a large and bountiful garden and we didn't think he would miss a few peas and carrots. I would have felt somewhat guilty for that misdemeanor if we had ever made it to the garden.
   We waited until the lights went out across the road. The night was partially overcast with intermittent visits from the moon; a perfect night for a raid. Eugene and Blaine decided to stay in the barn while Wayne and I made the visit. We stealthily snuck down the lane and across the road. There was a stand of apple trees that we felt we could sneak around and come up behind the house and the garden without detection.
   We had just started down the hill to I start our commando run when that big cat let out a blood curdling scream, just a short distance from our position.
   We both froze where we were. In unison we turned to stare at one another. The terror that I felt was mirrored on Wayne's face. Again in unison we turned to flee as fast as our legs and adrenaline could carry us.
    I always felt afterwards that Wayne should have run for the school track team because he beat me back to the barn and I knew that I broke all existing records that night. Wayne pole-vaulted up into the barn as I scrambled up behind him. Our companions had heard the scream as well and, needless to say, we did not sleep much that night. Every creak of the barn or stomp of the horses' hooves was evidence that the cougar was coming for us.
   It was not until the summer of 1969 that I finally got a look at the animal that had instilled such terror in my youth.
   A new section of Rte. 1 was being built between St. George and Pennfield Ridge,. Although it was not yet open to the public, a person could get onto the almost finished section if he knew where to do it.
   One evening I passed the barriers, heading towards St.George, and just before I arrived at the Upper L'Etang crossing, one of the cougars that had so terrified me went across the highway in front of me. Because it was black, I thought at first that it was a Labrador Retriever, but quickly realized it was a cougar. It had a long tail and did not bound like a dog does, but flowed, and was gone in a flash. No dog ever moved that fast.
    It was one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.
   Since that summer I have heard many other reports of people seeing the eastern cougar. It wisely stays as far away from mankind as it can, and those fortunate enough to get a glimpse of one receive a gift far beyond the earthly treasures we seek. My encounters with the cougar have.. changed my life.
    There is still a great deal of mystery concerning the eastern cougar. Confirmed sightings are almost nonexistent. If You can supply hair samples, scat samples, paw prints or photographic evidence that there are still cougars in New Brunswick, please do so. Natural Resources and Energy would like to have that evidence.
    To keep the eastern cougar on the Endangered Species List ample evidence has to be supplied to show that it, is still here.
    I, like many New Brunswickers, know that the cougar is still with us. Let us honour its desire for privacy and treat it with the respect that this noble creature deserves. It truly is one our natural resources.

This story was first published in the October 13 issue of the Telegraph Journal, Weekend Reader.Barry Hatt lives in Dumfries. If you have any cougar stories that you would like to share, his e-mail address is blhatt@rogers.com

THE END

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