WYTHEVILLE, Va. - At first
glance the two photographs on Don Linzey's desk appeared
to capture nothing but underbrush and shadow.
With his finger Linzey, a biology professor at
Wytheville Community College, traced the outline of a
cat-like animal that was approximately 30 feet from the
camera, but camouflaged behind the summer foliage. In
the first photo a tree blocked the head, but part of the
body and a long tail could be detected in the center of
The second photo showed the animal running away, and
here the back of the head and most of the body were more
visible. Linzey explained that the two photos were taken
in July from a rental cabin near the boundary of the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Linzey said the vacationing couple that shot the
photos believe they saw a cougar, and he thinks they
might be right.
"There's really not another animal in the park that
has that basic body shape and size," Linzey said.
Twenty-four years ago Linzey began tracking down
cougar reports in Virginia. Four years ago he expanded
his investigation to include the 800 square miles of the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Linzey is the author of two guidebooks, "Mammals of
Great Smoky Mountains National Park," and "The Mammals
of Virginia." He is also the lead mammalogist for the
All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory under way in the
While the prevailing wisdom holds that wild cougars
were eliminated throughout the East (except for southern
Florida) by the 1940s, sightings of these elusive
predators have persisted, particularly in the Smokies,
20 percent of which have never been logged and remain an
Linzey said cougar sightings inside the park have
increased "astronomically" over the last eight to 10
He said that up to 1995 the National Park Service had
received about 50 reports of cougars inside the Smokies
park and that this summer alone there were seven
sightings during an eight-week period between May 14 and
"Nobody put a lot of confidence in these reports in
the past," Linzey said. "The Park Service simply does
not have time to check them all out."
In order for Linzey to investigate a cougar sighting,
it has to carry weight. He looks for sightings that
involve more than one observer, and he takes into
account the observer's experience with animals and the
Once a sighting inside the Smokies passes the
credibility test, Linzey marks its location on a map
with a color-coded pin. The oldest sighting on the map -
marked by an orange pin - dates back to 1946 when a
female cougar and cubs were spotted near the Chimneys
According to Park Service records, there have been
four cougar sightings in Cades Cove this summer, the
first occurring in June on the north side of the Loop
Road near Tater Branch.
The observer, a man from Ohio, took a long-range
picture of the cougar out in a field that failed to
produce an identifiable image. According to the report,
the man wanted to get closer, but his wife wouldn't let
The next day another sighting occurred at the same
location, and this time the observer saw what looked
like a cougar catch a deer fawn.
Of the two other Cades Cove sightings this summer,
one occurred on July 14 near the Cooper Road Trail close
to Abrams Creek, while the other occurred July 16 a
half-mile east of the Cades Cove entrance at Laurel
Linzey said another cougar sighting occurred the
first week of June when a man and his wife spotted what
appeared to be a cougar while driving on U.S. Highway
441 just north of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
According to the report, the animal was fawn-colored,
weighed about 75 pounds and crouched at the edge of the
road before walking slowly in to the woods.
Linzey said that in this case the observer was a
veterinarian who had treated cougars as part of his
"How can you tell somebody like that they didn't see
what they saw?" he asked.
One of the most credible sightings recently reported
in the park occurred on May 14 along Little River Road
about one mile west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
The observer was Rebecca Shiflett, a professional nature
photographer from Knoxville who has documented the
park's elk reintroduction and is employed by Discover
Life in America as the official photographer for the All
Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.
Shiflett said the sighting occurred at 6:25 a.m.
while she was driving to an early morning wildflower
"It was a 40-mile-per-hour zone, but I was driving
below that because I knew I was approaching a game trail
where I see deer, turkey, and coyotes all the time,"
"So I'm coming around the curve and watching my speed
when I see this cougar about 75 to 100 meters in front
of me standing 5 feet off the pavement and on the left
side of the road where they had mowed. He's looking
right at me, and when he heard my car, he walks to the
tree line; he doesn't run."
Shiflett described the cougar as weighing about 75
pounds with round ears, short thick legs, tawny
highlights, and a long tail. She said at first she was
hesitant to report the sighting to park officials even
though she was sure of what she saw.
"I didn't have a photograph, and there was nobody
with me," she said. "But I felt somewhat vindicated
after I learned there have been several other cougars
seen and photographed in the park this summer. From now
on, I'll keep a backup camera with a telephoto lens."
Park officials say that two months after Shiflett's
sighting, another cougar was reported at the same
location at 8:45 p.m.
In 1973 the growing number of cougar sightings
throughout the East prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to include the eastern cougar on the Endangered
But during the early 1980s a comprehensive field
survey of the Southern Appalachians by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service failed to produce hard evidence of
cougars, although possible deer kills, scat and scrapes
So what are people seeing? Kim DeLozier, wildlife
biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said
the number of cougar sightings in the park over the last
20 years has him asking a slightly different question.
"I think people are seeing big cats. The question is
where did they come from?" DeLozier said. "Most states
believe these are captive cats that are released after
they grow up and get too hard to handle. Is there a
remnant wild population out there that has been hidden
for decades and is starting to re-surface? I think
that's a possibility, but not a big possibility. More
likely, I believe these are captive cats."
Linzey said as far as the question of where the
cougars are coming from goes, he wouldn't go out on a
"My goal," he said, "is to obtain positive evidence
that cougars are in the park and, ideally, to prove
they're breeding there."
Linzey said his best photographic evidence so far
comes from video camera footage taken in January 2001 by
a couple from Florida who, while hiking along a creek
bed in the park's Greenbrier section, saw what appeared
to be a cougar staring out of a rocky cave at close
"As far as I'm concerned, that's the first picture
image ever taken of a cougar in the park," he said.
With the help of park volunteers, Linzey has set out
30 "hair snare" devices in areas where the most reliable
cougar sightings have occurred. Consisting of roofing
nails attached to patch of carpet, the snares are placed
about 2 feet off the ground and smeared with a special
cougar-attracting paste developed in Montana.
Hairs caught in the nails are sent off to a
laboratory in British Columbia for DNA analysis. Linzey
said he is running into the expected problem of black
bears ripping the snares off the trees, and that out of
the eight samples he sent off three weeks ago, one was
positively identified as belonging to a bear.
He said that while most of the hair samples couldn't
be identified through DNA analysis because they were too
damp and moldy, one sample of cream-colored hair taken
at Davenport Gap was described as looking like it came
from a cat.
In addition to the hair snares, Linzey and the Park
Service also have mounted automatic infrared cameras
along select game trails in an attempt to photograph a
"With an animal as rare as the cougar, you don't go
about searching haphazardly. I hope if I'm ever
fortunate enough to see one, I have someone with me."
Morgan Simmons may be reached at 865-342-6321 or