COPY-Action News 5 Investigates: On the Prowl - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Reported by Bill Lunn

COPY-Action News 5 Investigates: On the Prowl

Barney Witherington stands over Beaver Creek in Tipton County where he says he and a friend were scouting deer in 2003.  They were walking on the creek bed itself, when suddenly they noticed something coming toward them.

"Around the corner comes what turned out to be a mountain lion," he said.   

Mountain Lion - another name for cougar.  Witherington, a Covington lawyer, had never seen anything like it before.
"It got within 50 or 60 yards, something like that, and it turned sideways, and at that time I saw the tail go up, which completely distinguishes that from a bobcat," he said.

And Witherington knows bobcats.  His game cameras have snapped pictures of bobcats on his farm, and he estimates he's seen 50 bobcats in his lifetime.  Cougars have a much longer tail.  Witherington and his friend knew this was no bobcat.

"I immediately said, 'Can you believe what we're seeing?'"

In a short time period after his sighting, Witherington said, there were about a half dozen sightings of a cougar on his farm by others, including a sheriff's deputy.  Since then - nothing.

Witherington's sighting is just one of dozens reported on website set up by Union University.   The website allows anyone who's seen a cougar in West Tennessee to report it.   Some of the reports are from places you'd never suspect, like Collierville, Cordova and Shelby Farms.  

Dr. James Huggins is the man behind the website.

"In the last week I've had nine reports come in," he said, adding the reports came from all over Tennessee.  

Despite all the reported sightings of cougars in West Tennessee, so far there is no hard evidence, such as photos, blood, tracks or fur.  Without hard evidence, wildlife biologists remain skeptical.

"I'm not sure how to explain the fact that so many people think they see cougars," Huggins said. "I think they see large animals.  I think in their minds that they want it to be a cougar."

Huggins said he believes a few of the reports on his website are credible.

"When a cougar call comes into our office, they send it to me," he said.

Alan Peterson of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources agency tracks cougar sightings in West Tennessee on a map outside his office.   One problem, he says, is people's credibility. Half the calls he gets report seeing black cougars.

"I don't know what people saw, but there's no such thing as a black cougar," he said.

Peterson will investigate, but he needs to hear that a person has more than anecdotal evidence of a visual sighting.

"I have a photograph. I have video. I have a track. 'I saw' doesn't mean anything.  I can't investigate 'I saw,'" he said.

Whether they're here or not, cougars are creeping eastward, closer to the Mid-South.   In April, Chicago police shot and killed a 122 pound cat within the city's limits.  A test of its DNA showed it was a wild cougar.

Closer to home, images of a cougar were captured by a camera outside Little Rock, and there have been confirmed sightings of cougars in both southern Illinois and southeastern Missouri.

As for West Tennessee?

"I think there's a possibility that something is out there," Huggins said.

If you think you've seen a cougar in West Tennessee, file a report by clicking here.  You can also read about other cougar sightings.

Click here to send an email to Bill Lunn.

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