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.
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.
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.