It was a dark fall night one decade ago when Marilyn Horsch says she first saw a mountain lion.
She was in the final stretch of her daily drive home from work in Kansas City when, near the intersection of Stull Road and E. 400 Road, the full-grown cougar sprinted across the beams of her headlights, 25 to 30 feet in front of her.
The animal ran like a cat, not like a dog or a coyote, and it was too big and had too long a tail to be a bobcat. "It was so close, there was no mistaking what it was," she says.
During the next seven years, the local artist says she saw cougars on or near her property, which sits on a hill just east of Stull, three more times:
One: Loping in the brome field south of the house; two: running out of a grove of trees east of the house and across a field (her husband saw that one too); and three: on the easement that runs to the north (her neighbor says he also saw one there).
In recent years, cougars (or mountain lions, or pumas) have been confirmed in every state west of the Mississippi River, with the lone exception of Kansas.
In Missouri, 10 cougars have been confirmed since 1994, according to The Cougar Network, a non-profit scientific research organization that tracks confirmed cougar sightings. In October 2002, one was hit by a car on I-70 and found dead two to three miles from the Kansas state line.
Oklahoma has had eight confirmed cougar reports since 1997. Colorado is home to a large, permanent breeding population. Nebraska has had 39 confirmations since 1991, including a cougar that was captured in Omaha in 2004.
Sightings like Horsch's have been reported in every county in Kansas, but not once, since a cougar was killed in west-central Kansas 104 years ago, has a sighting been confirmed.
* * *
The closest the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has come to confirming a cougar sighting was four years ago, when an associate research professor with the Kansas Biological Survey took a photograph on KU's west campus.
The professor, Mark Jakubauskas, found himself cast into the middle of cougar mania, even being called before the state House Environment Committee, which held a hearing to investigate the presence of cougars in January 2004.
Five months earlier, after much talk of a mountain lion stalking west campus, where Jakubauskas studies satellite remote sensing and lake bathymetry (nothing close to the realm of cougars), he had clamped a motion-activated wildlife camera to a tree, facing an isolated clearing between two groves.
For about six weeks, the camera sat on the tree, snapping pictures day and night. Every week or so, Jakubauskas had the film developed and thumbed through pictures of raccoons, deer, possum, and, a lot of times, nothing.
In early October, the now-legendary picture showed up: an animal with a long, black-tipped tail moving through the clearing. The animal's head wasn't visible, but the color, shape and size seemed to match that of a cougar.
Jakubauskas stopped short of saying so definitively, but it sure looked like one. "I think this is going to go off like a bomb," he told a Journal-World reporter.
Some state wildlife experts called the photo inconclusive, while others said the animal probably was a cougar. In December, Jakubauskas released another bomb: DNA evidence.
A couple days after the photo was taken, he'd found droppings 50 or so feet from the spot of the animal and sent the sample to a lab at Central Michigan University to test it for cougar DNA. It had come back positive.
"The verdict? It's a cougar," Jakubauskas told the Journal-World.
The next month, cougar mania reached its peak when the House held a hearing to determine their existence and discuss what should be done. The hearing was held following a growing number of sightings, and the vast email circulation of a picture of a man holding up a giant cougar that was supposedly killed in Leon, Kan. (this was later proven false).
Jakubauskas showed his pictures to the committee and told them about the scat test. It looked as if the state might, for the first time since 1904, recognize the presence of a cougar in Kansas. Then the cougar train came to a halt.
Wildlife and Parks maintained that the photo was inconclusive and said the scat test didn't prove it was a wild animal, pointing out that 104 people in the state had permits for captive cougars (today, after recent legislation regulated dangerous animal permits, only two people legally own cougars). A dot would not be placed on the cougar map, at least not as far as Wildlife and Parks was concerned.
In Jakubauskas' west campus office, he takes down the motion-censor camera from the top of a filing cabinet.
The epilogue to what Jakubauskas refers to as his "tiny 15 seconds of fame" is that Central Michigan's scat-testing methods were called into question by a group of scientists, leaving Jakubauskas with merely an inconclusive photo and a questionable scat test.
In the midst of the cougar frenzy, Jakubauskas says, people started calling him, mistaking him for a leader on the forefront of the cause of proving the cougar's existence in Kansas. One man told him his distant relative had shot a cougar, and that Wildlife and Parks had taken it away and then denied doing so. He said he still had a baggy of frozen cougar vomit he wanted to give Jakubauskas for analysis. "I passed on that one," he says.
The more cougar stories he heard-some credible, some sounding like UFO tales-the more he began to sympathize with Wildlife and Parks.
"Every time somebody would see a dog, I'd get a call," he says. "And it would always turn out to be a dog, or a bobcat, or a house cat. Nobody yet has called me with a solid cougar sighting."
He pulls up his cougar picture on his computer. "The long tail isn't really characteristic of a bobcat. It's too big for a house cat, wrong body shape for a dog." He sighs and says resignedly, "I don't know what it is."
Even The Cougar Network, which had lent its credibility to the sighting, took away its confirmation. The dot on the map placed atop Lawrence vanished.
* * *
There are stories that KDWP denies mountain lions exist in the state, or that we stocked them, that we've orchestrated cover-ups when mountain lions were killed, or even that we have tiny transmitters embedded in mountain lions. These stories are all false, of course. The truth is that in modern times there has not been indisputable evidence of a wild Kansas mountain lion-a photo, a track or a carcass from a road-kill. - from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks blog, April 4, 2006
Every week, cougar reports from across the state wind up in Matt Peek's Emporia office. It is often Peek, the furbearer biologist for Wildlife and Parks, who makes the call on whether a track, photograph, or video shows evidence of a real cougar.
Download "Cougar Hysteria" (PDF) by Dave Hamilton of the Missouri Department of Conservation's Mountain Lion Response Team. Right click + 'save link as' (1.2 MB)
When all the people who report cougars are denied validation-as every one of them ultimately has been-it is Peek who they speak of when they say Wildlife and Parks is in a state of denial.
Wild rumors aren't hard to find-that Wildlife and Parks introduced the mountain lions to control the deer population, that the department denies their existence because recognizing it would cause extra work, that the federal government has stepped in to bury evidence for one reason or another.
But the feelings of most people who say they've spotted cougars don't reach the level of conspiracy theory. Most simply want a little more acknowledgment that cougars at least pass through Kansas-validation for its own sake. Their presence, after all, has been all but proven.
In 2004, for instance, a cougar that had been fitted with a radio collar in South Dakota was killed by a train in Oklahoma. The animal would have had to take a big, strange detour to avoid Kansas.
Wildlife and Parks is "just emphatically saying there are not mountain lions here," says Robert Timm, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU. "I believe there are mountain lions here. Now, how many there are, I don't know."
Timm agrees with Peek that no sightings in Kansas have proven definitive enough to place a dot on the map-there hasn't been a clear photograph of a cougar, an unambiguous paw mark, or a body.
What their difference of opinion boils down to is merely the matter of acknowledgment. Timm says cougars most likely are in Kansas, and Peek won't go that far until he sees hard evidence. He doesn't deny their presence, but the reports he receives-pictures of dog tracks and bobcats and undocumented sightings-don't add up to an official nod.
"We're firm in our position here that we need to see evidence," Peek says. "To me, that's not asking much. Some people have reported frequent sightings and tracks and everything else. Just show one to us. That's all we're asking."
Range: up to 100 square miles
Length: 42-54 inches with a three-foot-long tail
Male weight: up to 200 pounds
Female weight: up to 120 pounds
Main prey: deer
Life span in the wild: up to 20 years
Vertical height a cougar can jump: 18 feet
Horizontal distance a cougar can jump: 40 feet
Source: Washington Nature Mapping Program
* * *
One day about five years ago, a horse on Joan Meyer's pasture two miles north of Sixth Street and Kasold Drive showed up with a pair of deep scratch marks on its hindquarters.
After determining that the mesh wire fence surrounding the pasture wasn't the culprit, and that there were no low tree branches that could have done it, she had the horse checked out by Jon Haggard, a veterinarian with Eudora Animal Hospital.
Haggard agreed that it could have been caused by a mountain lion (although he says it could've been caused by a number of other things as well).
A year later, the same deep scratch marks showed up on another horse. Meyer told Wildlife and Parks but didn't receive confirmation of a cougar. Later, on a trip down to Texas, she stopped by an Oklahoma wildlife refuge that has had confirmed sightings and talked to one of the owners.
"She said, 'Yeah, that happens. It sounds like the cats wanted to play,'" says Meyer, a canine training instructor. "The horses that they went after were not the 30-year-old horse that was in the pasture that was really weak, or one of the less ornery ones. The two different ones that they went after were the two most obnoxious horses that we have. In both cases, there were claw marks on the haunches on both sides, as both paws had been up there."
Charlie Lee, a wildlife specialist at K-State, kept track of reported cougar spottings in Kansas from 2000 to 2006. In those seven years, there were 233 of them, or one every 11 days.
But for many, like Lori Post, no evidence exists beyond the confines of memory. A couple months ago, Post was driving from her Perry home to Lawrence at 3 a.m. for work, cleaning laundromats, when she says she spotted a cougar eating something on the side of the road between Lawrence Paper Company and a blue house.
"It definitely wasn't a dog or a coyote," she says. "It was a light-colored tan, and it was bigger than a bobcat."
Her husband, Gary, press superintendent for the Journal-World, had his own sighting on a spring evening a year ago when he saw one on Ferguson Road on his way home from Atchison, where he'd gone to visit his daughter.
He was driving along a long, straight stretch when he saw a big, tan animal with a long tail crossing far ahead. At first he thought it might have been a great dane. But the closer he got, the more he started thinking, "That doesn't walk like a dog at all."
When he got within 100 yards of the animal, it hurried across the road and jumped over a guardrail, running into some woods and out of sight. "It didn't hold its tail like a dog does," he says. "A hundred yards was close enough, I could tell-it sure wasn't a dog, let's put it that way."
John Solbach says one snowy winter day a few years ago he was driving back from his barn to his house, at about the same place Marilyn Horsch, his neighbor to the south, had said she'd seen a mountain lion, when he noticed something running down the tire tracks a couple hundred feet in front of him. He thought it was a fox.
"Then it turned, and that big tail came up," says Solbach, a Lawrence attorney and former state legislator. "And then I realized it was a young mountain lion."
On another occasion, his three big dogs-a lab, a chow, and a border collie mix-let out a "high-pitched, wailing, almost blood-curdling sound." All that was left for Solbach and his wife to find was a menacing paw mark in the dust on the back of his wife's car and a missing pet cat that they never found.
"I'm a very skeptical person," he says, "but I'm fully convinced that they were here."
Carolyn Wulfkuhl, co-owner of Lone Pine Ag-Services in northwest Douglas County, says she saw a pair of dark gray mountain lions a few years ago during a 5:30 a.m. walk. Her husband, Lloyd, says he also saw one on their property many years ago. And their son David says something killed several of their hogs in the late '80s.
The list goes on. Deer hunters, KU biologist Orley "Chip" Taylor, joggers, students, and neighbors of Alvamar Golf Course have all reported seeing them in and around Lawrence. Stories-first-hand accounts from level-headed people-are as common as wheat. But hard proof that these fleeting things exist is rare.
* * *
Last week, a man was walking by the Wakarusa Wetlands with his daughter when they saw strange tracks in the snow. He asked Baker University for permission and set up a camera. After three days, he had captured a picture of a northern wetland otter.
The picture was clear, the tracks were distinctive, and the otter, which, like the cougar, hadn't been recognized around here for more than a century, was officially rediscovered. 6News proclaimed, "Welcome back, otter."
Why, then, when hundreds of people have reported seeing cougars across the state, when every surrounding state and every state west of the Mississippi has had confirmed sightings in recent years, does the Kansas cougar get no such luck?
"With as many deer hunters that are out there, as many cars as we have on the roads, as many trains that go past, it's really quite baffling, if there are very many cats out there, why one doesn't end up dead somewhere, sometime," says Timm, the KU ecologist.
What to do if confronted by a cougar
Though there have been dozens of confirmed cases of cougars in the Midwest since the early 1990s, officials say the chances of encountering a mountain lion are very small. Here are some tips if ever confronted by such an animal:
¢ Stop. Back away slowly if you can safely. Running may stimulate a lion's instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion, stand upright and maintain eye contact.
¢ Do not approach a mountain lion, especially one that's feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation, so give them a way to escape.
¢ Stay calm. Talk to the animal in a calm, yet firm voice.
¢ Do what you can to appear larger. Raise your arms, open your jacket if you're wearing one. If you have small children with you, protectively pick them up so they won't panic and run.
¢ If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever you can get your hands on without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly, intent on convincing the lion that you're not prey and that you may be a danger to it.
¢ Fight back if a lion attacks. People successfully have fought back with rocks, sticks, caps or jackets, garden tools and bare hands. Remain standing or try to get back up.
- Source: Missouri Department of Conservation.
What this points to, he says, is that the number of mountain lions that pass through, or live in, the state is relatively low. Peek says that mountain lions are coming down out of the Black Hills of South Dakota, where they've outgrown their population capacity, and it's only a matter of time before they will be documented in Kansas.
"If one's not here now, it probably eventually will be," he says.
With more people saying they're seeing mountain lions, Marilyn Horsch says she feels less crazy than she did a decade ago when she saw a cougar in her headlights. "At some point, my husband said, 'Don't tell anybody you've seen a mountain lion,'" she says. "I think there were a lot of skeptics. Now there have been enough people seeing them that it's not so uncommon."
What is the state to do if and when the cougars officially arrive? The policy, actually, has already been written: let them be, unless they're posing a threat to property or people (in which case they can legally be killed).
"I'm not sure there's anything you could do about it, or would want to do about it, other than say, 'Yeah, they're there,'" says Roger Wolfe, supervisor of the Wildlife and Parks regional office in Topeka. "If the animal isn't causing a problem, there's absolutely no reason to do anything."
Are cougars in Kansas? It's a question curiosity, and until their presence is proven, until that dot is placed on the map, they're invisible, and people are seeing ghosts.