Vindication is always a good thing.
Circles Ė and the way the world sometimes still moves in them despite the shackles weíve put on it Ė are also a good thing.
I wrote here last week about the encounter my brother and I had with a large cat, which I deemed a panther, on Lake Fausse Point in the very early 1980s. I said I didnít know if it was a flesh-and-blood creature or a spiritual emissary, and that the big cats of the south are supposedly extinct. Even if they werenít, none of the big cats in this region were ever black, biologists say.
Turns out, they were only half right.
In 2002, biologist Mike Carloss and his wife were leaving Lake Fausse Point State Park and came face to face with a cougar. The Opelousas Daily World reports Carloss as saying, "The animal was hunched down in an area of cut grass near the wooden gate. It apparently was staring at something before it noticed us. At that time, the animal was about 150 feet away."
They actually got closer, about 30 feet, to the animal before it ambled away.
The park biologist surveyed the area the next morning and obtained "scat" or a stool sample. He submitted it for DNA analysis.
Sure enough, the Wildlife Genetics Laboratory of the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service sent back the results: Puma concolor, the American cougar. Furthermore, the analysis showed the big cat had dined recently on Sylvilagus floridanus, the Eastern cottontail rabbit, and Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog.
So there it is. Genetic and eyewitness proof just five years ago of a cougar in St. Martin Parish, just north of here, on Lake Fausse Point, where I saw mine 25 or so years ago.
But what I saw, you will recall, was black. The cougar Carloss and his wife saw was brown.
While biologists believe the cougar never came in black duds, there is evidence that a "jaguar" was once common in Louisiana and Texas, as well as South America and Mexico, itís main range. These jaguars had a "melanistic" or black phase to their coats, temporary but very real.
So the juryís still out on what I saw back in the early 1980s, cougar or not, black or not. Regardless, there appears to have been, at least that far back, a breeding population of unknown size in the 3,000 square miles of the Atchafalaya Basin. If the cougar can be proven extant, why not jaguar, or a mix of the two (I donít know if thatís genetically possible, so donít quote me on it.)
It fascinates me that there could be such animals left in the basin, thrills me. Among the great sadnesses in the history of America are the vanishings, even the close calls. The buffalo. The wolf. The big cats. Fear, sometimes legitimate most often not, led to the near-total extinction of the gray wolf, the mountain lion, even the grizzly bear.
What if there is a small breeding population of cougars in the basin? Folks in Montana and Wyoming know that wolves are there. People see their scat, hear their howls sometimes. But very rarely do they actually see them.
Iíve lived here all my life and spend a great deal of time in the outdoors, all I can manage. Iíve only seen one black bear, and that was dead on U.S. 90 after being hit by a vehicle. Yet we have a refuge here, and some people see them regularly in those specific areas.
Perhaps what I saw was not a flesh-and-blood animal, after all, but Iíd like to believe it was. Maybe it came to see me and the brother of my soul because Ma Faye, my grandmother, needed to remember and tell me something about myself. Of course, back in those days, I was more interested in fast cars, the newspaper business and corporate ladders than in heritage. I probably wouldnít have even believed in it anyway and went on my merry way all full of career and achievement, pomp and circumstance.
But sometimes it doesnít matter if you believe in something or not, as long as something believes in you.
One thingís for certainÖIíll be keeping an even closer eye on my surroundings in the basin from now on. My eyes and ears are open now. Iím ready to hear what believes in me.