Mountain Lion Photo Mystery

by Ned Morgan

It began innocently enough this past January, when my father forwarded this photo of a mountain lion. The email included original text: “This cougar was pearing [sic] through the glass patio door of a house in Duntroon, Ontario between Christmas and New Years.”

I couldn’t believe it. Judging by the trees in the background, the locale could be anywhere in a northern climate (though the evergreens suggest the Northwest to me). And though animals like this one can be linked to a geographical range, that doesn’t necessarily help us with the location, either. And that is a story in itself.

Felis concolor is the species name of wild cats native to North America known as cougars or mountain lions, found mainly in regions west of the Rockies.

(I’ve avoided calling it a “cougar” in a probably futile attempt to dodge the jokes that crop up, particularly in Facebook comments, relating to the word’s slang meaning.) Unknown numbers of subspecies exist, but their habitats and behaviour are poorly understood, and their classification is confusing – one source identifies up to 40 names. These animals have always been elusive, feared, and difficult to study.

Many believe that a subspecies once thought to be extinct, Puma concolor couguar, lives on in scattered populations in the Northeast. I saw what I believe was one of these animals four years ago not far from Highway 26 between Meaford and Thornbury, Ontario, bounding into the forest. Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me but even if I had, the terrified animal was gone in about 5 seconds. It was long and thin, mottled grey in colour, with a small head and whip-like tail. It looked nothing like the tawny, muscular Felis concolor in “my” forwarded photo. This doesn’t prove that the latter isn’t at large outside of its native western habitat – unknown numbers of these animals, held in zoos or menageries, have escaped captivity. In the last five or so years, mountain lion sightings have increased across Ontario and the Northeast, though the photographic evidence remains too hazy to make a positive species or subspecies ID.

Puma concolor couguar? Photo: Michigan DNRE. www.michigan.gov/dnr

The problem with “my” forwarded photo is not one of quality, but of origin. Naively thinking I would solve the mystery through social media, I posted the photo on the Mountain Life Facebook page asking if anyone knew who had taken the photo and where. The response was overwhelming. The comments surged in, but instead of resolving the issue, they presented many more theories that further complicated matters. Several commenters were sure the photo was taken in BC. Another swore the photo had been around for years and he used to have it on his phone; another said her brother’s friend knew someone who knew the photographer, who had taken it in Muskoka, Ontario. Someone else said it was taken in Baysville, Ontario. Another claimed Stayner, Ontario, while yet another mentioned Arizona.

One of our more resourceful commenters named Martin Gouda did a Google image search (by image) and posted the results in a link. This link seems to me proof that the photo, wherever it was taken or by whom, went viral sometime early last year. The photo appears at least 637 times on various blogs and forums all over the world. The results display as the same photo repeated in a grid, creating a Warholian effect:

Many of the image search results led to photo blogs (some in Chinese, Korean, Russian and Hungarian) chock-a-block with crude hoax and joke photos interspersed with lurid ads. I clicked another result at random and it led me to Animaltalk.us, where the photo appears with a paragraph claiming it was taken in Maryland, though with no word about the photographer or any other details.

Another result led me to the message board of the Texas Hunting Forum dated January, 2012, with a note claiming the photo was taken “at a remote hunting lodge in Canada.” Clicking the photo link led to a Photobucket album of a certain Joel Dewey, but no information about him or if he took the photo or merely re-posted it. The message thread was a lively and disturbing discussion about how these hunters would take down the cat if they suddenly found themselves without a gun. One said they’d wrestle the cat into a headlock. Another said they’d “arm-bar” the animal. Another replied, “Anyone that has had their fair share of run-ins with big cats knows that a reverse traingle [sic] leg lock is inescapable, and with the correct amount of forward pressure can almost cause instant paralysis.”

One of the more “legit” sites where I found the photo posted is the Friends of Connecticut Mountain Lion organization, also known as Cougars of the Valley – a name that would certainly result in plenty of offside Facebook comments. But this site is no joke; recent posts talk about setting up a network of HD camera traps on hunting trails to photograph the animals in remote locations. Judging from the Sightings section, Connecticut is crawling with big wild cats. Here’s a typical sighting:

“Leaving work at 7 pm last night I caught a cat in my headlights starting to cross road. Legs big and strong looking. All I could think of was a tiger or lion. It looked like and moved like a lion I would see on National Geographic Channel…”

I asked Cougars of the Valley founder Bo Ottmann if he could tell me anything about the origin of “my” photo (which was displayed without credit on his site) and he answered: “I was told it was taken in Wyoming or Colorado by a doctor. That’s all I know.”

A little more digging online revealed that the “cougar on the porch” is a known email photo hoax, and I even found an article on this subject, though “my” photo was not featured here. These photos have been widely forwarded too, and claimed for numerous locations.

Attributed to Dave Rodgers. Courtesy About.com.

The motivations behind these hoaxes remain a mystery to me. Why would you falsely claim to have a photo of a mountain lion taken in your neighbourhood? Is spreading misinformation about these animals a kind of niche hobby? Perhaps the original forwarders derive some kind of satisfaction from knowing their email is continuously forwarded in an endless loop. Or perhaps they want to whip up some good old fashioned mountain lion fear. We know from old records and photographs that North America’s European settlers in the 1800s hunted these animals nearly to extinction, and something of this hysteria today survives.

I fell for the hoax: For a day or so I believed a forwarded email – its chain so long and convoluted that the source will never be determined – was a photo of a mountain lion living near my home. And then I forwarded the photo, thus perpetuating the hoax. Someone with the skills could probably CSI the photo and at least identify the time it was taken and the kind of camera and if the image was manipulated in Photoshop. But who has time for that? The photo now belongs to everyone and no one. Like any digital photograph it can be endlessly replicated, creating an infinite universe of binary code inconceivable just a few decades ago. Already that universe is a wilderness more impenetrable that the one in which mountain lions live.

27 thoughts on “Mountain Lion Photo Mystery

  1. Don’t feel bad, Ned. It’s not as bad as this guy I know posting photos of 60′ barrelling waves on the great lakes…
    Great work on the mag, guys.

  2. Hi Ned, Well! I’m on one hand, I’m sorry I ever sent your Dad the photo, but on the other hand, your trail of discovery is fascinating! It does remind one of the need to be careful and diligent about what one forwards.
    I am currently in Guatemala, ready tomorrow am to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal…maybe can find an “amazing” photo to send you!!
    all the best
    Bev

    1. Bev,
      I wouldn’t be sorry — I forwarded it too. Thousands of people probably have. I just spoke to a wildlife biologist at the MNR, and he knew all about the photo. He said he doesn’t believe it was taken in Ontario.

      Enjoy Tikal!

  3. 1. It’s really easy to tell if a photo has been altered. Takes no time at all. 2. While this article is long and makes the claim that there is a Hoax there is absolutely nothing that proves that this is a hoax apart from you saying you fell for one. More so it sounds as if you just do not want to believe that it is possible for an apex predator to come back to the area. Can you substantiate your claim, or are we supposed to believe a pithy opinion?

    1. Devin,
      I can’t substantiate my claim. It is just my opinion that the photo is a hoax – ie, that it wasn’t taken in Duntroon, Ontario, between Christmas and New Years. We’d like to do an analysis of the EXIF data in the photo and maybe that will tell us something. I felt that the fact the photo went viral over a year ago and showed up on websites and blogs all around North America with conflicting information about its origin, was proof enough that it was not taken when and where the original forwarder claimed. Of course there remains a chance that it was. My impetus for the initial posting of the photo was the hope that the photographer would come forward to verify its authenticity.

      If this photo is not a hoax, then I’m surprised that the Canadian media missed it, for they’ve been pouncing on “wild cats in the east” reports in recent years, but without good photos to back them up.

  4. Living in Markdale. Once we pass Rob Roy heading toward Barrie, we’re essentially in “cougar country”. Kind of exciting. Kids all lock their car doors now when we travel over there in Simcoe County.

  5. I don’t know if the photo is a hoax or not, but I’ve talked to people who have claimed they’ve seen cougars in Ontario. My brother-in-law claims he saw one near his place in Camden near Grimsby. My old neighbours, who now live near North Bay, claim there are cougars around a campground (Halfway Lake Prov. Park) where we camp about 1.5 hours north of Sudbury, plus I’ve talked to a older couple while hiking around there, who claimed they also saw a cougar in the area.
    We have a trail camera now so hopefully we might “catch” one :)

  6. Thanks for the entertaining and well written article. I came across it on a Google search for” mountain lions in Ontario”. Since I have no direct first hand knowledge about the photo in question, I really can’t comment on it one way or the other. Well maybe one comment; I wish i knew locked car doors would keep mountain lions out.
    Having lived in the Haliburton Highlands for 36 of my 41 years (with 5 years in British Columbia) I can say with certainty there are “Cougars” in Ontario. I’ve had 10 sightings in my life. Seven sightings in British Columbia and three in Haliburton county Ontario. These are confirmed sightings ( not a glimpse through the brush for half a second). I feel very lucky to have seen these magnificent beasts!

  7. Hi Ned

    No cougar sightings in Ontario since 1884. Yet since 2002 there has been over 2,000 cougar sightings in Ontario, half being in the past 4 years. It kind of makes you wonder whether there has been a clandestine program to recolonize cougars in Ontario. My sister had a cougar encounter when she was walking her dogs about 2:00 pm in the afternoon on Aug. 14, 2013. Cougar sightings are generally at dusk or dawn, unless … (I’ll let you do the research about that). The cougar walked across the road less than 70 yards in front of her. That’s too close. Lucky a car came by. This was just south of Lindsay, Ontario. A week later another cougar sighting was reported not far away on Pigeon Lake Road, east of Lindsay, also in the county of Kawartha Lakes. I have read that many of the cougar sightings since 2002 have been in Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton and Peterborough Counties. My sister has heard from two different sources that there has been a cougar recolonization program in Ontario. The second one that she heard about was that 17 cougars have been recolonized in the Bobcaygeon area, which is one of the most populated cottage areas in Ontario. Bobcaygeon is on the north end of Pigeon Lake which is also in the County of Kawartha Lakes. If the MNR or whoever is behind a clandestine cougar recolonization program (if in fact there is one) then you would think they would want to put them out in not such a populated area, considering they pose a threat to children, livestock and even grownups.

    On their Objective page the Ontario Puma Foundation says part of their objective is to “Provide support to projects involving the recovery of the Puma and its habitat in Ontario.” And “To protect large wilderness tracts to allow Pumas to roam uninhibited and encourage the protection of habitat for existing Puma populations in the province of Ontario.”

    Mike

    1. Hi Mike,
      I would guess that “accidental” recolonization is probably happening due to an increase in escaped pets. These animals are highly adaptable and intelligent. I can’t understand how or why anyone would want to keep such animals in captivity but it happens, and they do sometimes escape. But until pumas start attacking livestock or pets in great numbers, or otherwise threatening humans, they will probably stay under the general radar (which is where they should be). NM

  8. These are unimaginably super intelligent animals and even the best of the best pros are fearing them. Looks like it will be a long process. Even to get a quality census as to how many there actually are would almost be impossible as they can travel at high speeds.

  9. Now it’s flying around that it was taken in NH. I cannot believe that people immediately believe everything written on pictures and keep forwarding them! Now they are all saying they won’t go outside now. No wonder people are not taken seriously when they really do see one. If it was not photo shopped then I would think this would be very news worthy wherever it was actually taken. I doubt the person only took one shot. It reminds me of the moose cow that had her calf in someone’s yard. I believe over 30 locations took credit for it. I even had a friend of a friend claim it was in their neighbors yard in VT. Unreal!!!

    1. I have a feeling that photo was taken somewhere west. Cougars of the Valley founder Bo Ottmann said Wyoming or Colorado and I think that’s plausible.

      And although it doesn’t talk about the photo, the latest National Geographic has an article about cougars that cuts through much of the confusion. NM

  10. Now that we have snow people should be looking for tracks with the tail bob marks.Funny that in the last 15 years nobody has found any !!!

  11. National Geographic has lots of trail camera photos. It seems they find a kill and set their cameras.It also said one was shot for killing sheep.Most literature says they are the worst for killing livestock.If they are here we may not have to look to hard.They will come to us!

  12. That first photo was taken by a friend of mine in Argenta, BC, and is definitely not a hoax. Its amazing how much that photo has circulated!

  13. This article was hilarious at times. The author’s tone of bafflement over why people do and say the things they do was really funny. Laughed out loud a few times and I rarely do that. Particularly like the comment about giving the cat an “arm bar”.

  14. I know its been awhile but I do remember a report saying they were releasing cougars onto of blue mountain to try and re-establish them in Ontario that was in the early 2000′s in 2007 I was up in banks doing a farm clean out and the owner told me to come look at something it was a trail of cougar tracks just outside his deer skinning shed told me he had seen it on top of a rock trying to get in the shed also something I remember from the report was the last cougar siting was in creemore Ontario

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