‘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.”

3 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.

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