It was probably in early 2008 when the cougar began life high in a remote area of the Black Hills of North Dakota. Born deaf and blind, the male cub and his two siblings at first knew only their mother’s teats, but slowly gaining senses and body control, they were weaned at 3 months. By then they were rough-and-tumble miscreants already losing the spots on their fur and slowly learning the stalk-and-ambush hunting technique of their parent.
By early 2009 the yearling male was independent of his mother and ready to begin a remarkable two years of wandering. Knowing this beforehand, I’ll name this nomad Odysseus.
Male mountain lions (cougars enjoy this designation as well as puma and catamount) are territorial, so Odysseus’ peregrinations were first forced on him by older established cats. We cannot know, however, what drove this individual cat ever eastward.
His main motivation was finding food, but Odysseus learned from his mother the habit of stealth, especially of avoiding contact with humans like those who likely killed his siblings. Over time, Odysseus would also occasionally interact with those humans.
The first of those contacts was on Dec. 5, 2009, in Champlin, Minn., an outer suburb of Minneapolis, where local police observed him briefly. By then he had already traveled more than 500 miles from his birthing site.
Later that month, he crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin, where a farmer found a fawn Odysseus had killed, and trail cameras began to provide photographic evidence of his nighttime presence. Media attention gained him the local name, the Saint Croix Cougar. An attempt to trail him failed, however, and in late February his tracks through the snow were lost in an area overrun with deer.
Odysseus disappeared for almost a year, remarkably next being seen on Dec. 16, 2010, in Lake George, another thousand miles to the east. From there he made his way southeast to Milford, Conn. Crossing a highway on June 11, 2011, now fully grown and weighing 140 pounds, he was struck and killed by a car.
Except for my conjectures about his early life in the Black Hills, that re-creation is based on DNA evidence provided by blood and hair samples collected along Odysseus’ route and a final necroscopy performed on his carcass in Connecticut. The details are reported in Jenna Kerwin’s article in the October-November issue of the New York State Conservationist.
We are still left with the question: How did the cougar get from Wisconsin to upstate New York? There are a number of routes he could have followed. Odysseus could have made his way north into Canada, crossing into Ontario near Sault Ste. Marie, then trekking east north of Georgian Bay and finally entering New York by crossing the St. Lawrence River. (Cougars can swim but are generally reluctant to do so.) A southern route would not have required him to cross such bodies of water: he could have rounded south of the Great Lakes.
But a third possibility is most interesting to us here on the Niagara Frontier. Odysseus could have worked his way south of Lake Michigan, crossed into Canada near Detroit and then entered New York across the Niagara River. If you draw a straight line on a map between the Black Hills and Milford, it passes right through Buffalo.
Although that wandering mountain lion was able to avoid human contact for so much of his travels and his stomach was empty when he was killed, he certainly would have had little trouble finding meals along the way. Deer are a prime food source for cougars and there are plenty of them along any of those routes. In fact, arguably there are more along the more southern routes than in the denser forests of Canada.
Although most factual reports of cougars in the East turn out on examination to be released pets, Odysseus provides an unusual example of a truly wild animal that spent three years among us, while remaining almost entirely undetected.