Trail camera authenticates Island cougar

Pictures grainy but show all-important tail: Expositor’s $500 cougar picture challenge won

GORDON/BARRIE ISLAND—It was an email like so many of the other emails The Expositor has received over the years since offering a $500 reward for legitimate photo evidence of the presence of cougars on Manitoulin, the email subject title reading ‘Reward for photo of cougar.’

Admittedly skeptical, this editor opened the email from Chris Wenz, who hails from the Detroit area, and began to read, quickly scrolling down to the good part: the video, in this case. The video is from a Moultrie trail cam, set up somewhere in Gordon Township and is dated July 3, 2014 with a time of 2:43 am. The view from the camera is of a clearing with tall grasses, juniper bushes and, of course trees. With a view to the left of the video, one can see a movement and then, there it is, a sleek cat shape followed by a long, rope-like tail. (This video can be viewed at www.manitoulin.ca). After watching it a few more times there was a glimmer of hope. The reward has been on offer since June of 2009, and despite numerous attempts at nailing the elusive cougar, no one had been successful. ‘But perhaps this time?’ this editor thought.

The video was quickly emailed off to Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) cougar expert Dr. Rick Rosatte, senior research scientist as well as to past president of the Ontario Puma Association Stuart Kenn. Both had the same response: it looked good, now it was just a matter of confirming the trail with a trek to the bush and photo evidence of our own.

On Friday afternoon, this editor and her mother Julia headed off for the wilds of Gordon Township. “Wear long pants and proper shoes,” she admonished before we left Little Current, worrying about the potential for ticks and stubbed toes. Good call, mom.

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Mr. Wenz had emailed detailed instructions on how to find the spot, which led us to the camera no problem. Kneeling down to take in the view, it was indeed the same shot from the video complete with juniper bushes and angled poplar. It was real! And as an added bonus, during our walk along the trail this editor’s mother even spotted what appeared to be hairballs as well as patches of dirt that looked as though they had been pawed. Pulling out our ‘evidence bag’ (a Ziploc freezer bag) we gingerly placed the hairballs, two of them at different spots on the trail, inside. The MNRF has emailed a mailing address where they would like them to be sent for further analysis. Members of the McCutcheon family are avid cat lovers, as those who know them will attest, and know a hairball when they see one, no matter what size the cat.

“Did you find it okay?” a text from Mr. Wenz comes in.

“Looking good, Chris!” this cougar hunter texts back.

Back in Little Current, late on Friday afternoon, the new photos were emailed off to both Dr. Rosatte, who was eagerly awaiting them before heading off on holidays, and to Mr. Kenn.

Dr. Rosatte was brief and to the point: “Hi Alicia: Confirmation of the cougar in the video was based on the shape of the animal’s body but mostly due the length, size and black on the end of the tail—there is no other animal in the woods like this other than a cougar. Terrain in the photos you sent me is consistent with the landscape in the video.”

Bingo. We have a winner!

Dr. Rosatte is no stranger to The Expositor and its ongoing series of articles on potential cougar sightings, but until now he has denied every one. Former editor Jim Moodie, who had followed up for this newspaper on many ‘sightings’ and grainy photos, all in attempts at claiming the $500 prize, was contacted for comment, but denied, calling himself shy like the cats themselves. “Have you talked with Rick Rosatte, MNR cougar guy?” he asked, wanting absolute proof. “We have,” he was assured.

Mr. Kenn was also confident on the cat being a cougar after viewing the video. “It has an extremely long, rope-like tail that doesn’t narrow down like a housecat’s would,” he said. The Scott ratio, which is a head to body length ratio of 1:5.85 for cougars and 1:4.6 for housecats, also legitimized the feline as a cougar for Mr. Kenn.

“A puma’s tail (the cougar belongs to the puma family) is one third of its body’s length,” he added, noting that it can also reach the ground, unlike a housecat’s tail.

Mr. Kenn also told The Expositor that he believes that there are probably four or five different cougar “ranges” on Manitoulin.

Mr. Wenz was also keen to hear feedback on his video.

He explained that he purchased the Gordon property in 2001 after having spent many years vacationing at Red Lodge on Lake Manitou.

“I always wanted to have property there,” he said. So when an affordable piece of property was spied in this newspaper’s real estate pages, the Michigander jumped at the chance.

As a child, he said, his parents briefly owned land at Ice Lake. This was in the late 1960s. “I was shocked when I came back years later at how little it had changed and this was a part of the appeal for me—it remained unspoiled and uncommercialized,” Mr. Wenz explained.

As soon as he purchased the property he began to experiment with homemade 35 mm trail cameras (he still uses a few of these today) but has largely moved on to video cameras, like the one that captured the cougar. He said that while visiting his little piece of heaven in July, he removed the memory card from the camera and uploaded its findings to his laptop. (The cameras are motion sensored and are triggered when something moves within their view.) Mr. Wenz noted that he enjoys the vast array of wildlife that comes within view of the slight clearing in the bush where this particular camera is set up. “You see all kinds of neat stuff,” he said. “Especially bears—there are lots of bears.”

Mr. Wenz picked that particular spot because it is in what appeared to be a thoroughfare in the bush where animals might journey, and sure enough it was.

When he spotted the big cat, Mr. Wenz immediately brought the memory card over to his neighbour’s place, Georges Prevost, who thought it looked like a cougar. It was Mr. Prevost who reminded Mr. Wenz of The Expositor contest and after showing the video to his colleagues at work back home in Michigan who also believed it to be a cougar, the email arrived via the editor’s computer.

When it was explained that this reward had been in place since 2009, Mr. Wenz laughed, “And a damn American had to find it!”

“I’m very appreciative,” he said. “Just by luck I happened to capture this thing on film.”

Mr. Wenz said he would use the $500 toward his $250 non-residency deer tag fee for this year’s rifle hunt.

On Monday of this week, The Expositor again visited the spot where the Haweater cougar’s photo was taken earlier this month. This time, well-known Manitoulin field naturalist Steve Hall (coincidentally also a resident of Gordon/Barrie Island, like the cougar) agreed to also hike to the site. Mr. Hall was for many years the Manitoulin contact person (at the request of the Ontario Puma Association) for people wishing to report a suspected sighting of a cougar.

Mr. Hall agreed to stand, for a newspaper photo, precisely where the cougar’s photo had been snapped and which has led to the official confirmation of the presence of at least one cougar on Manitoulin Island.