Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Pawprints near school: cougar or wild goose chase?

Henry, Ill. – Seven people in six weeks reported seeing a cougar
on the northeast edge of Henry. Then police Chief James Young found
what he said could be evidence of one.

But wildlife officials aren’t convinced.

Tracks in mud outside Henry Elementary School appeared to have
been made by a cougar, not a dog or other animal, Young said.

“They look very much like cougar tracks we retrieved off the
Internet,” he said.

Young sent his photos of the tracks to Mike Wefer, DNR district
wildlife biologist in Lacon. He and his colleagues drew a different
conclusion, Wefer said.

“The tracks that Chief Young sent me, they looked like there was
claw marks showing, which to me meant dog,” Wefer said. “The
pictures I saw sure look like dog tracks.”

A teacher at the school saw the tracks and called Young on Aug.
19. Young took photographs, e-mailed them to Wefer, and then made
plaster casts of two impressions. DNR conservation officers were to
pick them up.

Young said rear pad marks on the prints are lobed, and most lack
claw marks, which indicate a cougar.

Seven sightings from seven different people, half at night and
half during daylight, in six weeks, came to Young, he said.

“This is not like we’re in the heart of a big city. And it’s a
stone’s throw from the river,” Young said. “These are not nocturnal
animals.”

Wefer couldn’t conclude what made the tracks.

“It’s a tough one. I wasn’t there. Strictly from odds, is there
a chance that there could be a cougar around? Maybe. Are the odds
pretty low? Yeah,” Wefer said. “I as a wildlife biologist don’t
have enough evidence.”

DNR Furbearer Program Manager Bob Bluett was also not convinced
that the track was made by a cougar.

Western cats have shown up in the Midwest. And the pet trade
complicates things, Wefer said.

“There’s people that like to play Johnny Weismuller (actor who
played Tarzan),” he said. “If it’s a wild cat, why would it hang
out in Henry? There’s so much disturbance. There’s so much
noise.”

“I’m still kind of on the edge of busted or plausible,” Wefer
said.

The presence of a cougar in one area for weeks would turn up
half-eaten carcasses, Wefer said.

“The human mind, you see something, you’re not quite sure what
that something is, your mind will put it in a box, put it in a
category. There always tends to be an increase in reports once it’s
been in the newspaper,” Wefer said.

“There’s always a chance it could be a big cat. Could we prove
in a court of law that there’s a cougar in Henry? I don’t think
so.”

Henry public schools Superintendent Thomas Urban lives on
Lincoln Avenue where sightings have occurred.

“We have not seen any traces,” he said. “We have not seen any
tracks or carcasses.”

Thomas attended a talk by Chief Young at the Rotary Club a week
earlier, where Young explained tracks and other cougar signs. Urban
also saw the tracks outside the school.

“I always look for the possibility of a prank,” he said.

A teacher said she saw the cougar from inside the school
building, Urban said.

As of Aug. 26, no report on the casted tracks had been received
from DNR. No additional sightings of the animal were reported.

As for human safety concerns, Urban said: “They’re an elusive
animal (cougars) and typically do not come around humans,
especially in large groups.”

In 2005 a camera was set up to photograph what local people in
Rock Falls claimed was a cougar. A photo was generated, turned over
to DNR, and the DNR concluded it was a large house cat.

There have been three confirmed cougars, or mountain lions, in
Illinois since 2000, and all ended up dead. Two were shot and one
was hit by a train. Their wildness is uncertain, according to
University of Illinois Extension.

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