Local cougar could have made it to Chicago

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rock County residents can hold out hope it wasn’t a visiting cougar that was shot on Chicago’s north side Monday.

But Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources mammal ecologist Adrian Wydeven said there’s a chance it’s the same young, male cougar that was sighted from Milton to Elkhorn in January and March.

“We can’t say it’s a good chance,” Wydeven said. “But it’s a chance.”

The voyage might sound improbable, but wildlife officials say that a DNA test should reveal whether the cougar killed in Chicago took a 1,000-mile trip from the Black Hills of South Dakota through this area of Wisconsin before being shot by police in a Roscoe Village neighborhood alley.

A caller reported a cougar to the DNR on Jan. 4 near Milton, Wydeven said. That report became more credible after another Milton man saw the cat when it leaped from behind a haystack in a barn and dashed out the door on Jan. 18.

Cougar tracks were reported in Janesville, Clinton and Elkhorn through March. Four sightings were reported in Wilmette, Ill., before Monday.

“There’d been quite a flurry of sightings,” Wydeven said, ticking off the names of communities between Milton and Chicago. “It does show kind of a southerly movement of an animal.”

On Tuesday, veterinarians performed a necropsy, an autopsy for animals, on the cougar at the Cook County Animal & Rabies Control facility in Bridgeview. Early evidence indicated the cougar was of wild origin, rather than an escaped captive, and blood samples were taken.

Officials will compare that blood to a sample that DNR agents took from blood left by a cougar when it cut itself escaping the Milton barn, but Wydeven was not sure how long it will take to get results.

DNA analysis suggested the Wisconsin animal was most similar to those who live in South Dakota, and experts say it might be the same specimen that eventually strayed into the Chicago area.

“It’s intriguing to think it may end up being the one that was here in Wisconsin,” said Doug Fendry, an area wildlife supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Animal biologists in California, where cougars often are spotted on the fringe of urban areas, have said it takes little cover for a cougar to move unseen, Wydeven said.

Forest preserves on Chicago’s north side would contain plenty of deer and raccoons for a hungry cougar.

Clay Nielsen, wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and director of scientific research with The Cougar Network, said that more and more cougars are wandering out of high cougar population areas such as South Dakota into Midwestern areas that have not seen them for hundreds of years.

A young male cougar will roam away from the land of its birth almost by instinct, many experts said. That could be a reaction to the dangers of genetic inbreeding or of overcrowding.

A cougar would have kept moving as far as it could in search of a mate, Wydeven said.

The cats normally live in 100- to 200-square miles of wild areas with woods, shrub lands and marshes, Wydeven said.

While Lima Marsh is very rural compared to Chicago, Rock County is urban for a wild cougar, Wydeven said.

“Even southern Wisconsin is quite developed for a wild cougar,” Wydeven said. “That might indicate the animal was previously in some sort of captivation.”

On Tuesday, officials at the Cook County Animal & Rabies Control sought to answer whether the cougar was wild or had escaped from captivity.

“He did not have any identifying marks as if he had been owned. He was a wild cat,” said Donna Alexander, administrator of the agency. She cited the lack of a microchip tag or tattoo, and intact claws and teeth that would normally be removed by pet owners.

Further tests being conducted by a veterinarian from the University of Illinois will determine the age of the cat, and DNA samples taken from the cougar will be given to wildlife officials from other states to try and trace the animal’s movements, Alexander said.

Without a map to help it avoid densely populated areas, a cougar wouldn’t have a great chance to stay out of trouble.

“Once it got into town, it was thoroughly confused,” Wydeven said.

“When an animal gets in a urban area and gets confused, it can respond aggressively,” Fendry said.

Though the cougar spotted in Wisconsin had not caused any safety problems and Fendry had no reports of it killing domestic livestock, he understood the concern that led Chicago police to shoot the animal found in Roscoe Village.

Most wildlife experts who have dealt with the potentially dangerous animal said it’s difficult to criticize the decision to shoot the cougar, saying such animals pose a threat to humans and are difficult to effectively tranquilize.

Police defended the shooting Tuesday, saying the decision to shoot the animal protected innocent bystanders and was not out of line with their usual response to threatening animals.

“Occasionally up here, we’ll get a bear in an urban area and it will have to be destroyed,” Fendry said as a comparison.

With the exception of the Florida panther, cougars are not an endangered or threatened species, Wydeven said. Texas has an open season on cougars, where they are considered a pest like coyotes in Wisconsin. Other states have cougar hunting seasons.

Whether the cougar is the harbinger for more exotic animal visitors or merely an anomaly remains to be seen.

But once all the tests have been performed, and the long trek of the cougar has been unraveled by wildlife experts, the cougar killed Monday may find its journey’s end in the collection of the Field Museum, which has requested the skeleton.

“It’s going to stay in Cook County,” Alexander said.

McClatchy-Tribune material contributed to this story.

Last updated: 8:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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