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The Golden Panther

  Felis concolor has roamed the American continents for thousands of years.  Cougars (to use one of their varied names) are incredibly adaptable to climate.  They have been found as far north as Alaska and as far south as the southernmost tip of Patagonia. 1,2,3  They live in deserts and forests.  They live atop mountains, sometimes higher than any other wild animal in the western hemisphere. 1  If not for man, the cat of one color (translation of the Latin felis concolor) would be Lord of the Americas.

   In 1500, Amerigo Vespucci was the first white man to sight and record a cougar in the Western Hemisphere. 2  He first thought them to be lions, thanks no doubt to their resemblance to the African lion. 2  Two years later, on his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus saw "lions" along the beaches of what are now Honduras and Nicaragua.  The first European to sight a "lion" in North America was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1513, saw one near the Florida Everglades. 2

   Long before the Europeans ever encountered the creature, native peoples were already quite familiar with them.  They had their own names for the "American lion."  The Guarani Indians of Brazil called them cuguacuarana, which French naturalist Georges Buffon corrupted into cougar. 2  Puma comes from an Incan language, meaning "a powerful animal." 1  To the Cherokee of the southeastern United States, the big cat was Klandagi, "Lord of the Forests," which bears an interesting resemblance to the famous "King of the Jungle" title held by its distant cousin in Africa. 1,2  The Chickasaws called him Koe-Ishto, or Ko-Icto, the "Cat of God." 1,2,3

   The names used by people today vary almost as widely as those used by those native cultures, and still seem as varied as the wide range in which the cats live.  The most common names used in the western United States are cougar, mountain lion, and puma. 3  Panther, painter and catamount are more frequently heard east of the Mississippi. 3  Panther comes from the Greek word for leopard, which creates some confusion when people discuss the big cats, since the melanistic leopard (one whose pigment level is too high, coloring its fur black) is commonly called a "Black Panther," while panther alone more often refers to the new world cat. 2  Painter is derived from an alternate pronunciation of panther. 3  Catamount is simply "Cat of the mountain." 3

   As widely distributed as cougars are today, their territories are diminishing with each passing day.  Man continues to progress into the forests, building communities and driving the wildlife back.  Today, the "Lord of the Forests" occupies less than half of the territory it held in what is now the United States compared to when Europeans first landed on American shores. 2  Certain subspecies of cougars are dwindling to extinction, despite efforts by some to preserve them.  One example of such is the Florida Panther. 2,3  Felis concolor coryi once roamed the Everglades without challenge.  Now there are less than 50 of the cats left. 3  In Southern California, mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Ana Mountains are fast losing ground to rampant residential development. 2

   Not so long ago, bounties were paid on the hunting of predators such as this.  In 1915, in response to pressure from stockmen and sportsmen, the U.S. Congress became a wildlife manager, appropriating money for predator control and charging the predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Biological Survey, with the mission of eliminating undesirable animals, mainly wolves and coyotes. 1  The Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 expanded the hit list, granting authorization and funding for the extermination of "mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, and other animals injurious to agriculture, horticulture, forestry, husbandry, game, or domestic animals, or that carried disease." 1  

   Between the federal money, state bounties, and extra incentives paid by counties and stockmen’s associations, a professional hunter could make a good living killing mountain lions, earning as much as $629 per cat. 1   Predator control bounties continued through the 1960’s with Arizona paying until 1971. 1  Ronald Nowak of the USFWS determined that a minimum of 66,667 mountain lions were killed in the United States and Canada between 1907 and 1978. 1  Even without the bounties once paid for killing these animals, predator control continues.  According to wildlife biologist Kevin Hansen, California spent 3.2 million in 1988 to kill 32,368 mammals (including 41 cougars) that were considered responsible for a total of 1.4 million estimated damage to livestock, poultry, and crops. 1  Ironically, it would have been more cost-effective to simply compensate the farmers for the damages.

   Despite the changes humans cause in their territorial ranges, cougars are still the most widely ranging cats in the new world.  They live as they have lived for tens of thousands of years, hunting to eat, fighting to survive.  Each passing day sees their territory shrink, and their numbers dwindle.  Some day they may live only as memories; words written in books; pictures on the pages.  For now, they remain Lords of the Forest.

Works Cited
1. Grambo, Rebecca L.  Mountain Lion San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
2. Hansen, Kevin. Cougar, The American Lion Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing
     Company, 1993.
3. "Cats"  Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. 2001 ed. 2001.
 by GoldenPanther

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