Archive for Thursday, September 28, 2006

Giving in to big cat hysteria

September 28, 2006

I've seen a lot of Kansas wildlife in the past year in my daily commute from Baldwin to Eudora. Turkeys are commonplace. I spot foxes once a month or so, often at night and within city limits. Deer are dangerously abundant. Raccoons and possums pave the road.

But despite driving through a timbered area said to be their home, what I haven't seen are cougars.

And although I once vouchsafed I saw a cougar in my granddad's south pasture, I have never seen one in the wild. That confession will irk my brother, who still maintains he saw a big cat that day when the two of us, our uncle near our age and two cousins went to the pasture to bring granddad's dairy herd in for the evening.

At the time, I half convinced myself I saw what the others said they saw -- a dark puma racing across the field to the east. But I never saw anything, even if I did join them in running back to the house, excitedly relating the story to granddad, dad and my cousin's father.

To get to granddad's south pasture involved a quarter-mile walk on a country road in southern Nemaha County. The cows were driven morning and night along the road as traffic obligingly slowed to part a black-and-white sea of about 30 cows. Often the herd would be at the pasture gate, waiting for the walk home. But sometimes they weren't in sight, leaving it to whomever was entrusted with the chore of bringing them in to guess where they might be in the 80-acre pasture.

Such was the case the day of the cougar incident. That gave our little family reunion of 9- to 14-year-old boys plenty of time to talk as we threw rocks from the gravel road at telephone polls and signs along the route. And I remember the topic of the talk was, coincidently, cougars. We talked of the Baxter girl, who reportedly had seen a cougar nearby. We speculated about what such an animal could do to a calf. And then we saw one -- or everyone else said they did and I agreed I maybe saw something. That was before I was trained to trust my keen journalistic skills of observation.

Well, we couldn't be expected to stay on task with a discovery of that magnitude. People had to be warned.

My granddad, dad and uncle weren't very supportive. On the contrary, I'd have to say they were outright amused. They did humor us by accompanying us back to the pasture.

If we saw anything at all -- and they were inclined to think we hadn't -- it was a dog or a coyote, they said. I had my own doubts, but I fully supported my peers. When we got to the pasture, the cows seemed to mock us, waiting patiently at the gate undisturbed by the presence of a killer cat in the vicinity.

Granddad never let us forget the incident, citing it whenever he wanted to remind us how young and foolish we really were.

In the ensuing decades, both my dad and granddad would claim to see a cougar in the same area. Dad said he saw a big cat cross the road in front of his car a mile to the south of the pasture. He thought it was a big dog at first, he said, before realizing it was a cougar. "What else could it have been with a long tail that curved?" he asked holding his index finger in a hook to illustrate.

My mom swears while riding on a senior citizen bus, she glimpsed two adolescent cougars playing in a gulley in the Flint Hills of north Wabaunsee County near the Kansas River. The driver of the bus saw them, too.

I have no doubt my mom and dad saw what they reported. Mom held by her story of seeing a bald eagle in the late 1960s when everyone knew such birds were never seen in Kansas.

With my brother stubbornly holding to his story, that leaves me. The sole member of the family not to have seen the big cats apparently prowling the wilds of Kansas.

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