Eastern Catamount Declared Extinct

In March of 2011, the Eastern Catamount was declared officially extinct by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

In 2011, Vermont forests and wildlife have rebounded from massive deforestation which was a result of economic activity in the 1800’s that included the cutting/burning of trees for potash and sheep grazing. There have been many reports of mountain lions in the Green Mountains spanning the years since 1881 when forested tracts started to return and the last officially recognized Eastern Panther the “Barnard Monster” was shot and killed.

Cat Sounds & Sightings

The talk in North Bennington Variety on the edge of the Village of North Bennington is that there is a very large bobcat that lives out by the Crossing of White Creek Road and Cold Spring Road. Some people believe that the cat people are seeing out there is a bobcat not a catamount or mountain lion. They have a trail camera set up that has captured photos of many animals including bobcat, moose and fisher cat. Because they have not captured an image of a catamount by trail camera yet, this leads them to believe it may not exist. Also in the store there is talk of a cat near the Vermont-New York border that people here think may be real, as there are multiple sightings reported by people working over there who come into the store.

Talk in the J.G. McCullough Free Library is of two cats, one dark brown up near Glastenbury Mountain that has been spotted on multiple occasions by a local landowner and that it has a den in the area. The other lion is supposed to live down off of Mount Anthony near the New York border.

Talk of Mountain lions spotted in Northern Massachusetts near Dalton by Fred who said his grandfather and father often saw them while on their farm during the 1950's and 1960's. More to come on this.

Bennington's “Year of the Catamount”
Jamie Franklin
          The catamount has not been co-opted as a new symbol for the Chinese Zodiac. However, residents of Bennington are certainly hearing about and seeing this ferocious, almost mythic, feline — painted sculptures of them, that is — with a lot more frequency in 2013.
          In their wild state, mountain lions, known by a litany of other common names including cougar, catamount, puma, panther, and, in good old Vermont dialect, as “painter”are almost strictly solitary animals, coming together only to breed and when a female is raising her litter. Yet, during the summer and fall of 2013 an anomalous herd of painted catamounts is stalking the sidewalks of Bennington in a followup to the successful Moosefests and Palettefest sponsored by the Bennington Chamber of Commerce in 2005, 2006, and 2009.
          Bennington's 2013 “Catamount Prowl” provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the history and mythology of the catamount, or, as it is scientifically known, the Eastern Cougar or Felis concolor cougar, and to gain a better understanding of how it came to be an icon of the Green Mountain State. This article serves as an overview of three small installations at the Bennington Museum, which are on view sequentially February through December of 2013.
Origins of the mythology
          As Samuel Williams notes in The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (1794), “Painters” were never common in Vermont. Yet due to their fearsome habits and the perceived danger they posed to new settlers and their livestock, catamounts quickly developed a notorious reputation in the decades after the first Anglo settlers arrived in Bennington the early 1760s. The roots of the Green Mountain catamount's mythology date back to those early decades of settlement in the late eighteenth century and are inextricably tied to a Bennington landmark that came to be known as the Catamount Tavern.
          Originally known as Fay's Tavern, or simply Landlord Fays, this building was erected by Samuel Fay between 1768 and 1770 and quickly became a popular gathering place. It served as a social and political hub during during Vermont's pioneer years, hosting the infamous Green Mountain Boys — Ethan Allen lived just south of the tavern then — and Vermont's Council of Safety during the Revolutionary War. During the 1770s and 1780s the tavern was undoubtedly the site of frequent heated discussions over land rights among local settlers. Having purchased their land based upon grants issued by the governor of New Hampshire, their title was being challenged by “Yorkers,” citizens of New York, who also claimed the land. It is said that during one of these gatherings of local landholders the stuffed skin of a catamount displayed in the hostelry was placed atop the tavern's tall roadside sign facing west, snarling in defiance toward New York. This simple act of symbolic aggression is the foundation upon which Vermont's catamount mythology rests.
          As with many historical narratives of this type, it is difficult to pin down exact details about Bennington's famed catamount. But a few period accounts provide a general sense of the appearance and possible origin of the cougar that topped the sign outside Fay's place. Ethan Allen's youngest brother, Ira, one of the leaders of the Green Mountain Boys, a frequent guest at the tavern, wrote a first-hand description of the famous cat in his book The Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont (1798). In relating the Green Mountain Boys' punishment of Dr. Samuel Adams, a resident of Arlington who sympathized with the Yorkers – whom they hoisted to the top of the Fay's tavern sign-post while tied into an armchair – Ira Allen noted that above Adams stood “a cat-a-mount's skin stuffed, sitting upon the sign-post, 25 feet from the ground, with large teeth, looking and grinning towards New York.”  In Williams' 1794 Natural and Civil History of Vermont he tells the tale of a catamount killed in Bennington “some years ago,” after it had taken a large calf out of a pen with a fence four feet tall and carried it on its back to a rocky ledge, climbing as much as fifteen feet in a single bound. The Bennington Museum's first executive director and curator, John Spargo, in a pamphlet titled The Catamount in Vermont (1950) surmised, because historical accounts of catamounts being killed in Vermont were rare, that Williams was likely describing the very beast that stood atop the signpost outside Fay's inn.
Disappearance of the Catamount from Vermont
          Despite their iconic status today, for more than one hundred years, from the mid- eighteenth century into the late nineteenth, catamounts in Vermont were regarded as little more than a threat to humans and livestock, and killings of the stealthy beast were touted as big news. Like the wolf, a more common predator that roamed Vermont during the same period, the catamount was extirpated from its historic range in the Green Mountains as the result of fear, unregulated hunting, and widespread deforestation. Tales of catamounts killed by Vermont hunters were typically filled with drama, gruesome details and hard-to-believe facts that only added to the mythology of the big cat.
          The last of the catamounts to be verifiably killed in Vermont was shot by Alexander Crowell on Thanksgiving Day 1881 in the Windsor County town of Barnard. The “Barnard Monster,” as it came to be known, was not only the last but also the largest catamount on record in Vermont, measuring seven feet six inches long and weighing 182 pounds. Crowell became something of a celebrity in the months after he shot the beast, which he accidentally stumbled upon while hunting, and photos of him with the dead cat, along with pamphlets describing the story of how it was killed, were distributed among curious Vermonters. There was so much interest in the “Barnard Monster” that it was mounted by a taxidermist “as a perfect life-like representation of him as he appeared when roaming our forests” and it toured throughout the state. Curious gawkers would pay 10 cents to see the stuffed animal, an ironic twist in our state's history. It remains on display in the museum of the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier.
          The story of the catamount seems to be representative of the dramatic evolution Vermont went through in its first hundred years, from its days as a frontier wilderness when the wild cat symbolized Vermonters' rugged independence through the period of the industrial revolution. The eventual extirpation of the catamount came to represent the state's seeming triumph over nature.
Is the Catamount really gone?
          The Eastern Cougar was declared officially extinct by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service on March 2, 2011, seven decades after the last verifiable sighting of a mountain lion east of the Mississippi. Just three months later, on June 11, a mountain lion was hit and killed by a car on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Connecticut. This was the first cougar conclusively documented in that state in well over a century and officials were quick to argue that the animal was likely an escaped pet and not evidence of a sustainable population of wild cats. But DNA testing proved that the Milford cougar was actually a wild male whose genetic code matched a population of mountain lions living  in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Thus the cat was indeed an anomaly, having made a 1,500-mile journey in search of food, a mate, or open territory.
          The fact that a wild mountain lion made it to the East Coast fans the flame for many who believe that there are still catamounts roaming the hills of Vermont. In fact, reported sightings of cougars in the Green Mountain State have been extremely common since at least the early twentieth century. Rev. William John Ballou of Chester, Vermont, was a most ardent believer and advocate for the continued existence of wild Vermont catamounts. A reputable character and experienced woodsman, Ballou went about collecting stories of sightings of panthers around Ludlow and Chester, where he was minister of those towns' Congregational churches. The Bennington Museum has a set of four cast paw-prints executed by Ballou in 1934 in a field south of Chester. In addition to his serious attempts to verify the continued existence of wild catamounts in Vermont, Ballou organized a tongue-in-cheek mock fraternal group known as “The Irrepressible and Uncompromising Order of Pantherites,” with himself as the Grand Puma.
          In addition to the sports teams at the University of Vermont, which call themselves The Catamounts, one person who did much to keep the legend alive was the late Aldo Merusi, who was the chief photographer, state editor, and best-known staffer for the Rutland Herald from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s. Besides his official duties, Merusi assumed the role of “Panther Pete, Herald Panther Editor” and as such set out to report on every supposed sighting, including reports to game wardens. According to Kendall Wild, the longtime managing editor and then editor of the Herald, Merusi never actually authenticated any sightings. But he understood the importance of legends and knew that they made for good stories. When someone wrote asking if he really believed there were panthers in Vermont, his response was modeled after the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter that an editor of the New York Sun had written to young Virginia O'Hanlon in 1897, which was sixteen years after the last panther was shot in Vermont. In it, Merusi pointed out how hum-drum and dreary life would be without them – no eyes flashing in the glare of a car's headlights, no mysterious footprints in the snow, no piercing screams in the night. “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there will be a panther in Vermont for as long as sane people as you and I continue to believe – and for as long as Fred Hutchinson's prize cat hounds keep their distance.”
Not everyone satirizes or dismisses stories of catamount sightings as mere legend and, whether they be true or not, these stories have become a very real part of Vermont culture. In conjunction with the third and final catamount installation at the museum, on view mid-September through December, artist and Bennington native Daniel Richmond has devised a conceptual, community based art project to collect stories from local residents of recent catamount sightings. In addition to a call for catamount sightings, which will be shared with museum visitors, the exhibit will include fragments of recycled Vermont marble sidewalks carved by Richmond with disjointed accession numbers, vestiges of the museum's formal cataloging system. After the exhibition is over Richmond will give the markers to individuals who share their story of a catamount sighting with the museum. These individuals will then be asked to place the markers at the location that their sighting occurred and provide a photograph of the marker in situ to the museum. In doing this Richmond draws upon Bennington's rich legacy of historic markers and Vermonters' love of their land and its native flora and fauna, while simultaneously validating the stories, which are so often dismissed as lore by the public at large.
Whether it be as a result of Ballou's cast panther paws, another news headline like the Milford mountain lion, or the stories collected as part of Daniel Richmond's project, the mythic status of Vermont's catamounts will undoubtedly endure for generations to come.