Followup: Cougar Sightings In Lake Forest

Adrienne Fawcett

A lot of people are spooked by the thought of a cougar roaming west Lake Forest, but authorities remain skeptical until they see a photo, paw print or other evidence. They’re not saying it’s impossible that a cougar is in our midst, nor do they doubt that people saw some sort of unusual animal.

Rob Carmichael, curator of Lake Forest’s Wildlife Discovery Center, told GazeboNews he just doesn’t think it was a cougar that they saw.

“There’s no doubt that they saw something. Perhaps it was a seldom seen domestic cat like a Maine Coon or Bengal cat … both are large and can look quite wild. Coyote are common and possess the same type of cryptic coloration and long tail of a cougar. Fox could be another possibility. I’m just very skeptical it was a mountain lion,” he said.

At least two people independently said they saw a cougar in or near Conway Farms in the past two weeks. Jane Stickney saw it on Thursday, Oct. 20, at about 10 p.m. when she was out for her nightly walk with her dog, an 80-pound black Labrador Retriever, in the Stonebridge area near Conway Farms.

They were near Conway Farm Drive and W. Newport Court when her 10-year-old dog, which is normally calm and docile, started barking vociferously and pulling on its leash. Ms. Stickney said she saw something emerge from the tall grasses, and at first thought she was looking at a possom, raccoon, deer or coyote–any of the normal assortment of animals seen wandering open areas of Lake County.

“But the more I watched as it came out of the grasses and into the road–it was about 30 feet away–I could see it was a big cat. The shape of its head, paws, long tail–it was a big cat. And it just stared at me and crossed the road. And then it stopped again and turned back toward me. It was dark out, but the animal was buff colored and stood out against the darkness.”

She said she senses that authorities are skeptical, but she’s confident in what she remembers. “I know what I saw and it was a big cat. It was bigger than my dog, who’s about 20 inches tall and 80 pounds. She knew it was something that wasn’t normal. We’ve seen deer and coyote, but this animal was skulking. That’s the best word for it–skulking. And it was not afraid of us at all. That was what I thought was worrisome; it had no fear of my big barking dog.”

On Friday, Ms. Stickney was interviewed by WGN-TV and the CBS news local affiliate and even led the 10 p.m. news on one of the stations. The Lake County News Sun and GazeboNews each ran a story on Saturday.

But neighborhood concern was building even before the media got involved. So last week, Conway Farms Property Manager Phil Duncan sent an email to alert residents about the cougar sightings.

“We sent it out to put residents on notice that people have reported seeing this wild animal, and with Halloween coming up, you’ve got kids out, and you’ve got small dogs out front, and you want to be safe,” said Mr. Duncan.

On Monday, Oct. 24, the Lake Forest Police Department issued a press release about the animal sightings:

“The Lake Forest Police Department has received reports from residents sighting a large cat, possibly a bobcat, or cougar also known as a mountain lion, in the Western portion of Lake Forest near the area of Rt. 60 and I94.”

#1 October 7th, 2011, at 4:45 p.m.: A large cat was seen in a heavily wooded area. It was reported to stand still for a few moments then continued walking.

#2 October 13th, 2011, at about 12:15 a.m.: A man heard his dog barking loudly and paced up and down, growling at the back yard. The area was searched the next day for evidence.

The Police Department investigated each incident and enlisted the assistance of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources informed us they have had no confirmed sightings in our area. There must be physical evidence such as a paw print, hair sample, scat sample or photo to confirm the presence of an animal.

There are no sustained populations of mountain lions in Illinois. Those that appear are transient, having been pushed out of their home region by the resident lions. These animals generally avoid populated areas and may be here looking for food. Deer are their main prey in the Midwest.

Deterrence for these animals include; dogs, bright lights, flashing white lights and music. Residents are encouraged to report sightings of suspicious animals immediately. Deer carcasses should also be reported to the Police Department.

In a follow-up email, Deputy Chief Glenn Burmeister told GazeboNews that the man who made the report on Oct. 13 didn’t actually see a cougar or other wild animal.

Mr. Duncan, the Conway Farms property manager, said it’s unlikely that the animal at issue is a coyote. He also said that he has not seen as many deer in the area in the past couple of months.

“Everyone in Conway Farms has seen a coyote at one time or another,” he said. “In various other places around Chicagoland people have reported seeing moutain lions, so it’s not exactly unheard of.”

A source at the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said cougar sightings are reported every so often in Lake County but that no law enforcement officers have yet seen such an animal, nor have they located tracks or droppings. Nor has the County Animal Warden received any calls about cougar sightings in Lake Forest.

According TheCougarNetwork website, there have been three confirmed cougar sightings in Illinois in recent years:

Illinois has had three confirmations, the most recent one in early 2008 being the most extraordinary — a cougar shot in Chicago! DNA analysis said this was the same cat that had been confirmed earlier in southeast Wisconsin.  In July 2002, a male cougar was killed by a train in Randolph County in the southwestern portion of the state.  Analysis of the carcass indicated it was of North American genotype and that it had been feeding on white tailed deer. There was no evidence that this animal was ever in captivity. This appears to be a transient which traveled through Missouri which is just across the border.  A second male cougar was killed by a bowhunter in December 2004 in New Boston (northwestern, ILL).

After hearing about the cougar sightings at Conway Farm, Wildlife Discovery Center Curator Rob Carmichael did some research.

“I spoke to a mountain lion expert who is very skeptical of these sightings,” he said. “Although this species is venturing eastward expanding its natural range, Lake Forest isn’t part of that range. According to Kevin Hansen who wrote a book about mountain lions, over 95% of supposed cougar sightings are false and that’s in areas where they are commonly seen. If there was a mountain lion in Lake Forest, I would have expected other communities to report similar findings.

“I’m not discounting this story but I need to see proof. News has blown up so badly that I ran into ten people walking in the Middlefork Savanna who were looking for this cougar.”

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