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Cougars in Ontario: Myth or Fact?

August 24, 2023

By Guy Scott

Originally Published in 2013

Are there really cougars in Ontario? The question has inspired debate for many years. Historically, cougars were present long ago in Ontario, but never in large numbers. The last cougar was shot in 1884. Since then it is believed they are extinct. There were lots of rumours but no positive proof.

The North American cougar is also known as a puma or mountain lion. They are still common in Western Canada, but the eastern branch was considered extinct by the 1940s. But the legend has lingered that some survivors still haunted their traditional ranges.

Cougars shun human contact. Their primary diet consists of deer, so the primary range is in the vicinity of winter deer yards. There have been cougar sightings at Bobcaygeon and Burleigh Falls in recent years. These oversized members of the cat family can grow to over 6 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds! They can be brown, reddish-brown or even light beige in colour. Males are much larger than females. They are great travellers: the males can range over 1,000 square kilometres! A cougar sighted in an area one day can be dozens of kilometres away by the next day.

Their tracks are like a dog or cat: four toes showing. THe cougar track is approximately 3 inches wide by 3 ½ inches long: double that of a wolf. A walking cougar has a stride of 20-32 inches. In the deep snow, a cougar track will show tail drag marks and the tracks will be deep I the snow due to its weight.

The Ministry of Natural Resource has received close to 1,000 reports of cougar sightings between 2003 and 2012. Most of these sightings have been in central Ontario. Over 90% of the sightings have been declared false: wolves, lynx and dogs are confused with cougars. But since 2010, some actual hair and scat samples have been confirmed as true cougars thanks to DNA testing. But positive proof of Ontario cougars has remained elusive, until July 2012, when a real live, positively identified cougar was shot by police in Utterson, near Bracebridge. The animal had been seen several times and actually was shot while killing a pet dog. The Ontario press went crazy and every major newspaper in Ontario ran stories of cougars confirmed in Ontario.

Where did these modern cougars come from? Some people blamed escaped or released pets as the main cause. There is a cat farm near Bracebridge, but the owner declared no animals missing. A pet cougar would not be as shy as a wild one. Others claim the cougar never really disappeared in Ontario. The MNR lists the cougar as an endangered species. The Canadian Wildlife Service declares the eastern cougar as “data deficient.” The Ontario Puma Foundation is a group dedicated to preserving the cougar population and educating the public.

Are cougars a threat? They are common in B.C., but only 2 cougar attacks have been recorded in Ontario in recent times: the last one at Whitefish Bay in 2006. Cougars, like wolves, rarely stalk human targets. Here is the official advice on how to handle a cougar sighting:

Never approach the animal, especially if it is near a kill or with young, and never offer it food.

Released or captive reared cougars may be accustomed to humans and allow you to get close. Nevertheless, animals are unpredictable and you should always exercise caution.

If you see a cougar or lynx, stop, pick up small children, and don’t run. Remember, their instinct is to chase.

If you are with others, stay together and act as a group. Children and pets should be kept very close.

Face the animal. Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away. Always leave the animal an escape route.

Don’t crouch down or try to hide. Try to appear larger.

Do not take your eyes off the animal or turn your back.

If the animal does not flee, be more assertive by shouting, waving your arms and throwing anything available.

If the animal attacks, fight back with everything you have.

If you believe a cougar is threatening your personal safety or that of others, call 911 or your local police.

If you believe you have seen a cougar, but it is not a threat to public safety, please report it to your local Ministry of Natural Resources office.

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