Several years ago on a snowy winter afternoon in Tennessee, I saw something cross the road in front of my truck that caused me to rethink the existence of mountain lions or black panthers living east of the Mississippi River. I’ve told few people of my sighting and instead concentrated on collecting similar first-person reports of large long-tailed cats along the Appalachian Mountain chain, the swamps of West Tennessee and the river bottoms of the Tennessee Valley.
I am convinced large wild cats exist; that their long tails make them distinct from bobcats common to the South; and they aren’t escaped exotic pets or zoo animals. Other than my own sighting and anecdotal evidence derived from fellow outdoorsmen who have seen animals that many wildlife biologists say do not exist in our environs, there has never been proof, one way or another – until now.
In the big cat debate, it appears that neither the believers nor the skeptics are correct. The apparent truth is that there are large long-tailed wild cats newly inhabiting southeastern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas – and, I am convinced -- Tennessee. It is also apparent that these wild cats are not panthers or mountain lions.
Let me introduce the jaguarundi, a critter known in the American Southwest for many years but making an appearance in other states in what might be called range expansion. The cat is long-bodied with a solid color coat of either black or brownish gray to chestnut. It definitely has a head shape that resembles a cougar, plus it sports a long tail. The tail can be up to 24 inches long, and the maximum length of the animal is said to sometimes reach more than four feet.
Said to be among the most adaptable of the large wild cats and able to survive in diverse environments, the jaguarondi – also called the otter car or “tigrillo” among its many other names – can easily be mistaken for its larger relative, the mountain lion.
I can’t say with certainty that what scooted across the road in front of me was a tigrillo. It could have been an immature mountain lion, which I thought it to be at the time and firmly believed until now. It definitely was not a bobcat or large domestic cat. I think it more plausible my sighting was a jaguarondi because now one of my friends, and a highly respected hunter and game manager, has seen one, too.
Not only has he and his wife observed a specimen of jaguarundi in the wild, it has been corroborated by other sightings and documented by prints. This occurred in the Black Belt of West Alabama, an area long known for its whitetail deer and wild turkey habitat but also a pair of very successful western invasive mammal species: coyotes and armadillos.
I have known and shared the woods and waters with this fine man for 36 years. He taught me how to deer hunt. A Vietnam combat veteran decorated for bravery and certified forester by trade, he doesn’t imagine things and has the eyesight of a hawk. He also is reliable when it comes to species identification.
“It was a jaguarundi,” he declared, “and a big one.”
Lacking any trepidation, he volunteered the information without knowing of my sighting 10 years ago. Using his connections with state and federal wildlife officials, he learned these types of sightings are on the increase.
Jaguarundi cats may indeed occupying territories in the Southeast, but no game and fish department has officially recognized the species east of the Big Muddy. All the same, hundreds of hunters, loggers and wildlife enthusiasts over the years have reported sightings of long-tailed cats thought to be cougars.
In reality, many of these probably were glimpses of a smaller but just as impressive feline relative: the tigrillo. I firmly believe that is what I saw.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.