October 24, 2016
Mike Fies was home getting ready for Christmas when his boss called. A woman not far from Fies' home in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley reported a mountain lion sleeping under her deck.
"He told me to go investigate," recalls Fies, then a young biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "I wasn't too happy about going out on my day off to check on something that didn't exist."
When he shined his flashlight under the woman's deck, though, Fies nearly fell backwards.
"I'll be dog gone it there wasn't a mountain lion staring back at me," recalls Fies, a DGIF furbearer biologist.
As it turned out, a nearby resident had a variety of wild animals in cages, including four mountain lions. A door was left open and three escaped. One was hanging out in front of the cage and was quickly shooed back inside. Another was caught in a walk-in bear trap on a nearby poultry farm and the one Fies encountered was tranquilized and returned to its owner.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Fies has since fielded hundreds, perhaps even thousands of phone calls, e-mails and letters from people reporting a mountain lion. Not a single one of them have been confirmed, even when the correspondence included a photo.
"The photos we most often get are from somebody's friend of a friend of a friend, or something like that. They are easily debunked.
Most are taken from somewhere out west or they are of a captive animal. Others turn out to be something like a bobcat, a house cat or a dog with a tail like a lion's," he says. "Some people just don't know what they are looking at and others I think want it to be a lion or they convince themselves it's a lion."
Fies adds that his agency gets a few photos "that make us pause," but after a little digging, those pictures are debunked, also. It's often a house cat that appears larger in the photo, or in one case, a bobcat that was moving across the camera's view quickly.
"We had to look at that one pretty close. As it turned out, the back foot was in such a position that it looked a lot like a tail because it was moving, which made it look blurred," he says.
Is it possible someone actually saw a lion in Virginia or in any other state where, after years of research, eastern cougars were declared officially extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service? Fies is always open to the possibility. Why not?
Although records are sketchy, he thinks there are 10 to 20 captive mountain lions in Virginia, where it remains legal to own them with the proper permits. A few have escaped on occasion. However, captive lions would likely stay close to humans because that's where their food comes from.
"It's unlikely they would head for the woods. They wouldn't know what to do," says Fies.
Despite repeated claims on Facebook and other social media outlets, it's highly unlikely wild mountain lions live in Virginia. Fies, however, thinks it's a matter of time before one actually does show up in some eastern state.
After all, a three-year-old male lion was struck and killed by car in Connecticut in 2011. After DNA testing, researchers determined the animal originated in South Dakota before traveling 2,000 miles across the northern United States. Young males will often roam in search of a female and new territory.
Another cougar was verified in western Tennessee this year after officials examined a photo of one captured on a trail camera and then examined the photo's location.
Other sightings were confirmed in the same region in 2015, suggesting it might be the same cat. In all, six trail camera photos were confirmed in Tennessee, and hair samples submitted by a hunter were also verified. DNA from that cat linked it to other lions in South Dakota.
A five-year-old male mountain lion was killed by a game warden in a Paris, Kentucky neighborhood in 2014. That cat was also linked by DNA to South Dakota lions, but biologists believe it was actually an escaped pet, based on its health.
No other lions have been confirmed anywhere east of the Mississippi River in recent history except in south Florida, home to a distinct, isolated population that numbers around 200, and southern Georgia.
There, a hunter killed a lion in 2008 that turned out to be a Florida panther that wandered far from its home, a rare incident, according to Florida panther experts. Because the animals are endangered, the hunter was fined $2,000.
As Fies says, a single report in Virginia or any other state would likely be followed by numerous other reports from the same general area. And it would eventually be caught on someone's trail camera, which is exactly what happened in Tennessee.
"There are too many people and too many roads for a lion not to get sighted on more than one occasion or to not get hit by a car, even if it was just a single lion passing through the area," he says.
"We would have it on a trail camera that we could actually confirm or somebody would get a verifiable photo or one would be treed by bear hounds. We would have some solid proof if there was a mountain lion in Virginia."
And despite claims to the contrary, there has never been a single black mountain lion ever recorded in the wild or captivity. Ever.
Fies, however, says about a third of the lion reports he gets are of black ones, which makes the reports even more unbelievable.
Equally far-fetched are claims that his agency stocked mountain lions to control the deer population.
"I have no idea how those stories get started, but I can assure you, we have never stocked mountain lions," he says. "We didn't stock coyotes, either, but a lot of people will never believe that, no matter what you say."