Monday, January 22, 2001

Group wants cats protected

Foundation thinks felines back in Ky.

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — A cougar kitten that was killed by a car on a highway in eastern Kentucky three years ago may not point to a thriving population of the big cats.

        But that one, coupled with dozens of recent sightings throughout southern Appalachia, leads Chris Volgiano to think cougars exist in sufficient numbers to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

        “We ought to welcome them back, and be grateful for their willingness to give us a second chance,” said Ms. Volgiano, of the Eastern Cougar Foundation in Harrisonburg, Va.

        Cougars have been absent from the Appalachians for 150 years, but Ms. Volgiano thinks increasing evidence in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia suggests they're back.

        Jason Plaxico, a state wildlife biologist in eastern Kentucky, said reported sightings are not uncommon. Confirming them is difficult, unless someone finds a carcass like that of the 3-month-old kitten he examined three years ago. He said the man who ran over the kitten told him it was following a mature cougar and two other young ones across a road near Martin in rural Floyd County.

        DNA tests traced the kitten's ancestry to Argentina, leading Mr. Plaxico to think the mother cat had at one time been someone's pet.

        “People are collecting these as pets, trying to raise them, and when they get big they find out they can't handle them,” he said. “They open up the door and say, "See you later.'”

        David Maehr, a wildlife biologist and professor at the University of Kentucky, said the biggest challenge cougars face surviving in Appalachia is not habitat or food sources.

        “The ecological components are there,” he said. “We have sort of a silent majority of people who don't want them here.”

        Because of that, no state in the eastern United States has been willing to consider reintroducing the big cats, even though their natural prey — whitetail deer, turkey and rabbit — have become abundant.

        Roy Grimes, wildlife director for the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said he does not think anyone needs to worry about encountering a wild cougar in Kentucky. But if it were to happen, he said they shouldn't be treated the same as bear.

        “Don't run and don't crouch, Mr. Grimes said. “Face it, make yourself as big as you can. Make noise. If you're wearing a coat, open it. If it attacks, don't play dead. Fight back. They can be chased away.”


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