TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma — Residents of northeast Oklahoma are used to seeing feral cats running through downtown streets, jumping in and out of gutters and perching on vehicles, but a Tahlequah woman spotted something much bigger.
Two weeks ago, Shelly Cooper was on the outskirts of town, but still in a developed area, when she noticed a large animal wandering through the field. At first she thought it was a dog, but as she got closer she realized it was a cougar.
“It was huge and I was shaking because I was in shock,” Cooper said. “I had seen it from about a football field. When I stopped further, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” He was walking along the undergrowth and I saw him for about eight minutes.
This is not the first reported sighting of a big cat in Tahlequah. Volunteers from the Tahlequah Mission Park project in town reportedly saw a cougar prowling. Cooper spoke to some law enforcement officials in the area after the sighting, and was told people had spotted mountain lions in the past.
“It was right by the school with kids coming and going, and all these houses right there with animals in the backyard barking,” she said. “If he’s hungry, it’s scary. I don’t think you would see anything like this in broad daylight, especially with the traffic noise and all.
But wildlife officials in the area aren’t convinced what she saw was a mountain lion. Cherokee County Game Warden Cody Youngblood said while it’s possible for a big cat like this to pass through the area, it’s rare because there’s no breeding population of mountain lions. in this region of the state.
“In my opinion, and to any wildlife operatives who have seen the photo, this is not a mountain lion,” he said. “He looks bigger than your usual cat, but his belly is right next to the floor. A mountain lion is going to have a considerable amount of space between his belly and the floor.
Mountain lions – also called cougars, pumas, panthers, or catamounts – have tails more than half their body length, black tips on their tail and ear, and are mostly tan in color. Males average 7 feet long and weigh about 140 pounds, while females are about 6 feet long and weigh about 95 pounds.
The photo taken of the cougar is pixelated, making it difficult to discern what type of creature Cooper saw. It has defined muscles, a long tail, tan fur, and appears larger than wildcats, but the species is difficult to confirm.
However, sightings of mountain lions in Oklahoma date back to 1852, when two were killed in the southwestern part of the state. According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, a female cougar’s home can span 50 to 75 square miles, while a male can span 90 to several hundred square miles.
The ODWC investigates dozens of potential cougar sightings each year, but few provide enough evidence to confirm their presence. It is not uncommon for dogs, bobcats, house cats, coyotes, foxes and deer to be mistaken for cougars.
The Wildlife Department has confirmed 44 sightings of cougars in the state since 2002 because they have been captured by trail cameras, killed after belittling livestock, leaving hair samples, illegally poached or beaten by motorists. In 2010, a radio-collared cougar released by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in north-central Colorado wandered into the Oklahoma panhandle.