‘Ghost Cat’ confirmed as ghost

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed that the Eastern Cougar (a.k.a. puma, mountain lion, catamount, red tiger, or “ghost cat”) is officially extinct — i.e., there have been no wild breeding populations of the species since, probably, the 1930s. Officials blame continuing, numerous mountain lion sightings in the eastern states on mistaken identity (either another animal entirely or a migrating Western Cougar), or on big cats escaped from captivity — though they may have trouble convincing many locals of that!

This sad news does provide an opportunity to highlight some of Hugh Morton’s striking photos of cougars in the wildlife habitats at Grandfather Mountain.

I’m not entirely sure when the first cougars came to Grandfather (circa late 1970s-early 1980s), or of the impetus for creating a habitat for them — perhaps some of the staff at Grandfather can shed light on that story? But I believe the image below to be one of those inaugural cougars, named Terra and Rajah, possibly upon arrival at the Mountain (judging from the ropes and the unhappy attitude). (Of these two, only Terra, shown in the photo at the top of this post, was an Eastern Cougar — Rajah was Western).

Mr. Morton was obviously taken with the animal’s extreme elegance and athleticism. He tried repeatedly to capture that perfect “cougar leap” image. I’m particularly fond of the shot below (taken in 1982 of the cougar named Judy).

Two cougars, Nakita and Aspen, currently live at Grandfather (though the website doesn’t say whether either or both of them are Eastern Cougars). At least, through captivity programs like Grandfather’s, we can take comfort that not all of these incredible animals will become “ghosts.”

4 thoughts on “‘Ghost Cat’ confirmed as ghost

  1. The cougar / mountain lion / panther seems to be a favorite photo subject of Hugh Morton. He included a snow picture of this magnificent animal as part of his 2006 book, “Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer” (page 64).

    In his 2003 book, “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina,” there is a picture of Terra on page 52. Image #3 of the cougar kitten in this post is also duplicated on page 53 of the same book. I believe that picture is Mina. Morton’s caption is: “This cougar kitten had a western cougar as its father and Terra, the Florida panther at Grandfather Mountain, as its mother.

    Laurie Mitchell Jakobsen, in her 2001 book, “The Animals of Grandfather Mountain,” on page 6 says: “Mina was born to the first resident cougars, Terra and Rajah, in 1982. Mina is half eastern and half western cougar. Her mother, Terra, was an endangered eastern cougar.”

    There is another Morton photo of Mina on page 5 of Catherine Morton’s 1993 book, “Grandfather Mountain,” with this caption: “Mina’s mother was an endangered eastern cougar and her father was a western cougar. She shares traits of both subspecies, including a talent for fishing which is typical only of the eastern cougar.”

    On page 18-f of Jakobsen’s book there is a picture of “Mina enjoying a ‘fishcicle’.”

  2. The habitat was originally built in the mid-1970s to hold mother bears with cubs. I remember being photographed with Mildred in that habitat in 1978.

    It was not designed to hold cougars, but in 1980 the state of North Carolina passed a law regulating the type of enclosures in which cougars could be held. Hugh’s friend, Silvio Martinat of Lenoir, was forced to find a place for his pets (Rajah and Terra) that met the state standard.

    Terra was a Florida panther, born in the Florida everglades in July 1970. The Florida panther is a different subspecies from the Eastern Cougar. There are actually still some Florida panthers left in the wild.

    Rajah was a Western Cougar, born in North Dakota in July 1975. He was brought to Grandfather in May 1980. After it was proved that the habitat would hold him, Terra was brought to join him in July 1980.

    Judy and Mina were daughters of Terra and Rajah (born in August 1982), making them half Florida panther and half Western Cougar.

    The current residents of Grandfather’s Cougar Habitat, Aspen and Nikita, are both captive bred Western Cougars. Aspen was born in Colorado. Nikita was born in Florida from Western Cougar stock.

    I don’t recognize the cat with the ropes. I don’t think it was Rajah because he walked comfortably on a leash.

  3. Some sad news from Grandfather Mountain as reported by “AveryJournal.Com” on 11/5/14
    Grandfather Mountain cougar Nikita passes away …

    Grandfather Mountain is grieving the loss of one of its most popular and cherished habitat residents, a cougar named Nikita.
    Following a brief bout of illness, Nikita was humanely euthanized Wednesday, Oct. 29, after veterinarians discovered a mass in her abdomen. The mass, likely attached to several organs, was interfering with her liver and kidney function and putting strain on the 16-year-old cougar’s heart, said Habitats Curator Christie Tipton.
    The only possible treatment would include feeding tubes, anti-nausea medication and antibiotics, Tipton said. Because of Nikita’s advanced age, habitat staff did not feel it was in her best interests to pursue the aggressive treatment.
    Habitat staff had been monitoring Nikita closely for several months, as she was losing weight and not eating as heartily as usual. Blood tests last month showed issues with her kidneys, but she remained active until this week, when she began ignoring food and refusing to enter the indoor enclosure at night.
    The loss of the very social cat is difficult for the keepers who interacted with her daily.
    “She was the biggest sweetheart ever,” Tipton said. “She would talk back to you constantly, and she just loved to be around people.”
    Nikita was born July 25, 1998, and arrived at Grandfather Mountain in February 2003 after being removed from an exotic animal collection in Florida. Her relocation to Grandfather Mountain was filled with mishaps and surprises, habitat keepers remember.
    In her first home, Nikita lived in a 20-by-30-foot cage with a concrete slab floor.
    When she arrived at Grandfather Mountain, she did not like the grass, dirt or snow she encountered, and tried to fling everything off her paws as she explored the new world.
    Nikita eventually grew to enjoy the freedom of her larger habitat and the company of Aspen, 11, a male cougar who also lives at Grandfather Mountain. The two were often spotted playing, cuddling and wrestling.
    She also was admired by the roughly 250,000 guests who witnessed her beauty each year at Grandfather Mountain, most of whom would not be able to see a cougar otherwise. Cougars, classified as extinct in North Carolina, have an average life expectancy of 12 years, according to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
    “She was always a favorite of the Behind-the-Scenes tours because she would always come down to visit with the people,

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