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It was a cloudy fall afternoon the day Andrew Hendrick, a local Jackson dad, told me a story.
“You will never believe it,” he said. “When I was out there with my daughter, I saw a big animal leap from tree to tree. I wasn’t sure what it could be, so we got out of there fast. I kept thinking, ‘That was way too big to be a bird,’ so I did some research. It turns out… there are mountain lions in the Union woods.”
Could it be? Mountain lions in the Union woods? It sounded unbelievable, but stranger things have happened, right? I decided to do some investigating.
First I called Jackson TN Wildlife Control.
“Shoot me straight,” I demanded. “What do you know about mountain lions in the woods next to Union University?”
They put me on hold.
I waited for what felt like an hour, listened to too many minutes of really distorted piano music, and was just about to throw in the towel, when suddenly a woman with a thick southern drawl came back onto the line. In no hurry, she said, “What was your question again?”
I repeated my question with urgency. I needed answers.
“That’s going to be one of those ‘yes, but maybe no,’ questions,” she said. “There are documentations and sightings of mountain lions in West Tennessee. Where they’re at is hard to pinpoint because they have such a large range.”
So it was possible.
“So it is possible?” I asked.
“Oh it’s definitely possible. Or it’s possible that it’s a large cat.”
I asked her if there were any recent mountain lion sightings. “Not that I’m aware of. You can check the website,” she said. So I did.
It turns out that when you search “cougars in Tennessee” (cougar is synonymous for mountain lion) on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency page’s website search, the first article that comes up confirms that there was indeed a cougar sighting just last year. On Sept. 23, 2016, a cougar was spotted in Wayne County just southeast of Jackson.
While I definitely believed the woman at the Wildlife Center, I decided I needed another source. I emailed Dr. James Huggins, professor of biology at Union.
Is there a time we can talk about the mountain lions? I wrote. I need answers.
He wrote back, I am in my office now if you have time. Of course I had time. This could not wait.
I drove Ole Blue, my family’s beloved blue minivan, over to White Hall and parked in a teacher parking spot. There was no time to find a student spot. Like I said, I needed answers.
I flung the doors open and hustled down the hallway to his office. There was just one problem: I had no clue where Dr. Huggins’ office was or what he looked like. I saw a room full of taxidermied mammals and saw a professor-looking man in a sport coat with white hair shuffling things around on a desk. A stuffed mountain lion perched on a shelf behind him. I walked past. I didn’t have time to look at stuffed animals. I was hunting for Dr. Huggins.
Then I stopped and realized that must be him. I doubled back.
“Hi, Dr. Huggins. I’m Janelle,” I said.
“Well were you scared of me or something?” Obviously I wasn’t. I just didn’t know who he was.
We sat down in his office and I shone a bright light in his face. “Tell me everything you know.” I brought my fist down forcefully on his desk. I’d make him talk.
[Note: a few of my personal behaviors in this story have been fabricated for dramatic effect. I’m usually quite polite.]
He dove right in. “I don’t know much about the Union woods, but I do know that there is not enough area there to support the territory for something as large as a cougar. I guess one could come in and be here for a little while, but they have a huge range – 200 miles or more,” he said.
The population of cougars is growing, now that the government has provided them with protection. This means that, because the alpha males fight the lower males in the pack and force them out, the lower-ranking males move out and try to find their own territory and a woman to start a pack with.
“They’re expanding their territory across the Mississippi, and of course they’re looking for mates here. There’s not any. They generally try to go back where the girls are. That’s what the guys at Union do – they go where the girls are.” (Dr. Huggins is an expert in human behavior as well as big cats).
Someone about two years ago shot a cougar with an arrow, and the animal got away, but they found some blood and discovered it was a female.
“That’s the first recorded female east of the Mississippi,” he said. “There have been males that have made forays east of the Mississippi as they search for females, but this was the first recorded female.”
He told me that any time you get females in the area, that gives you the potential for “little ones”, which would then set up a resident population of cougars. “We’re not sure if we have a resident population. We just have confirmed sightings, and some very close to our area. So they are here, or at least come through.”
There have not been any recent sightings of mountain lions near here, but Dr. Huggins suspects that since hunting season is now underway, game cameras may soon catch some cats in action. Apparently most of the cougar sightings around here come from game cameras.
I asked him if it was dangerous for us to go into the woods, all the while considering my dear friends who often camp and hammock out in the Union woods. Nobody has time to be attacked by a cougar when they are in college. It would be quite inconvenient.
“Dr. Huggins,” I said. “Be honest.” (He needed to be reminded that this was no time for tomfoolery). “Are we in danger?”
He explained that the mountain lions that would be in the Union woods, if they were there at all, would not be so accustomed to humans, that they would do anything to attack. In fact, they would probably be more scared of humans than humans of them. “The fear that is spoken of in the Bible – whenever the animals came off the ark – God said I’ll put a fear of man in animals… They still tend to have a fear of man.”
He almost had me convinced that the woods were safe, but on the off chance that I was the lone jogger who came face to face with a large cat in the woods, I had to ask, “What would be the best thing to do if I meet a cougar?”
“If the cougar is really looking at you, he’s probably thinking he could take you. Probably the worst thing you could do is to run. I think just to walk off, making noise, singing, you know. If he was to get close, I think you should probably be defensive. Grab a stick and just beat on the ground just so he doesn’t know what you’re doing.”
He also reminded me of the golden rule in animal world – that there is safety in numbers.
When I felt I’d gathered enough evidence, I told him to have a nice day and left his office.
As I drove home in Ole Blue, I considered the facts. In my pondering, I concluded that it is indeed possible that there are mountain lions in the Union woods, and that was the answer I needed.