Hair, bones, and tracks

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A cougar hiding behind some tree branches.
All I am saying is, I can see why a cougar or any other animal would rather not be around humans. Wayne Thornton via Wikimedia Commons

The myth of the Atlantic cougar persists

In the small eastern province of New Brunswick, there is ongoing debate to the existence of a mysterious Eastern/Atlantic cougar population. If you were to Google the question “are there cougars in New Brunswick,” the answer you are likely to find is no, there are no cougars.  

In fact, the province has no confirmed records of the species since 1874. To date, there have been no confirmed sighting, tracks, or any sort of evidence pointing to cougars in the province. Moreover, in recent cases, genetic testing has conclusively ruled out two suspected encounters involving big cats in New Brunswick as not being cougars.  

Canadians living in the Western and prairie provinces are no stranger to cougars. The species has established breeding ranges in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and is considered a secure species according to the Federal government. In fact, populations appear to be increasing. Cougars are solitary animals and rarely found together outside of raising their young. Cougar populations are dependent on factors such as prey availability and habitat. 

Despite a lack of evidence, there is a large portion of New Brunswickers who adamantly believe the big cats are roaming about the province. The Facebook page “NB Cougar Sightings” has over 17,000 members with active daily posts that boast both claims of cougar sighting and speculations.  

Hundreds of posts claim to have spotted the tawny big cat, as one Facebook user wrote, “I found a lot of fecal samples in the wild on my property. There were some that definitely resembled cougar droppings. Definitely not from a canine or herbivore. Definitely from a large animal. If it’s not a cougar, some other huge unknown predator is pooping in NB forests.” Similar posts detailing sightings can be found on the page.  

One Facebook user wrote the following, “Heading west saw LARGE CAT WITH LONG TAIL run across highway toward river,” and another, “Seen one about a half hour outside of Bathurst, NB, on route 180, at about 4 am…”  

In late 2023, one New Brunswicker’s claim to have spotted a cougar gained traction after they provided ‘evidence.’ After reviewing the submission of images animal experts ruled that the feline present was much too small to be a big cat. “This is clearly a house cat,” said Donald McAlpine who is the head of the natural history section of the New Brunswick Museum and head of the Zoology section. The Saint John resident who reported his sighting says he is an avid outdoorsman and has been on a mission to prove cougars exist in the province since 1970. “It would be so magnificent if New Brunswick could claim to be the home of cougars,” he said in an interview with CBC News.  

The NB Cougar Sightings page remains divided by the issue. In addition to cougar enthusiasts on the page there are many people who claim the contrary – there are no cougars in the province. “With all the doubters on this page, I am weary to post my experience,” wrote one user. Another points to cougar’s ability to hide well and conceal their presence offering explanation for why they haven’t been seen. “In 2005, I walked from Toronto to Vancouver. Yes, walked. Going through Banff National park, I was followed by a female cougar and her cub for three days. I only ever caught glimpses out of the corner of my eye. But I found the tracks. 

Cougars know how not to be seen.” 

To add to the controversy, some claim that not only are there cougars in the province but that there is a rare subspecies of black cougars. Facebook users claim this is due to an escaped panther from a provincial zoo. In fact, black cougars have been reported 49 times in New Brunswick and 42 times in the neighbouring province of Nova Scotia. A Facebook user on the NB Cougar Sightings page wrote the following: “I have seen three cats in my life two tan and one black and other people there twice to witness.” Despite claims, there are no known magmatism’s of black cougars anywhere. Cougars can be identified by their uniformly tawny, grey-brown, or red-brown coat and a long, black-tipped tail.  

According to “Mammal Special of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference” there are four cougar subspecies in Canada. It is the subspecies Puma concolor couguar, which was historically found in eastern Canada and was listed on CITES Appendix I in 1975. The eastern cougar is colloquially known by many names that include puma, mountain lion, or carajou. According to a document from the provincial Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development about the species at risk, the best evidence of cougars has been suspected cougar scat and tracks near Deersdale in 1992. More recently, researchers found “solid DNA evidence” in 2003 of two cougars in Fundy National Park according to Parks Canada. However, the small amount of hair used to conduct DNA testing was consumed during analysis and had no accompanying images as evidence.  

Despite lack of clear evidence, McAlpine says that he is still open to the possibility of finding a cougar in New Brunswick and suggests there may be cougars infrequently entering and leaving the province. Whether it’s believed or not, some Facebook users on the NB Cougar Sightings page worry that all the posts will increase the risk of harm to cougars in the province.  

One user shared the following, “The only thing that I will ever say on this page other than some random posts or comments is can everyone please stop posting where they see cougars the where in New Brunswick could be being followed by hunters and they really need help to survive I think and to not become extinct to our province tell your story share your photos please stop telling everybody where.”  

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the mythology surrounding the elusive Atlantic cougar is not about the big cat at all. Rather, the desire to confirm their existence might tell us a more important story about ourselves.  

As the number of users on the NB Cougar Sightings page suggests, this is an area of concern for many. In sharing their stories about supposed sightings New Brunswickers either knowingly or unknowingly form a mythology about us, our province, and its natural landscape. For some, this might mean finding comradery or social cohesion amongst our peers.  

Further, the black panther itself might act as a story New Brunswickers can share about the uniqueness of our province and in doing so addressing the sentiment that the “west” forgets us. Hopefully, it might signal a collective desire to return the environment to an ecology that could sustain the lives of a cougar population. 

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