Return of the Ghost Cat

The photo is black and white. It’s 8:02 p.m., according to the timestamp at the bottom of the image. The flash of the game camera extends to a narrow strip of open dirt, worn with muddy boot prints, the deep tread of machinery—and cat tracks.

Standing in the open, left of center, is a slender, fit mountain lion. It’s dark and the image is grainy, but it’s obvious the hind legs pushing the animal forward are tense with muscle. A tail drops straight away from behind them, curling gently before touching the ground, culminating with a black tip carried delicately over the dirt. The animal’s head and front legs are obscured by the tree in the foreground. The scene, even documented as a still photograph, exudes the silence of a ghost in the night.

And until October 2015, to residents of Obion County, Tennessee, the cat was a ghost. Stories of cougars in the area were only that—prevalent enough, but never confirmed. This photo was different. Submitted by a 19-year-old student and hunter to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency from a game camera in one of his favorite hunting spots, this image stood out from the slew the agency receives of purported sightings.

A date and timestamp on the image, as well as the SD card on which it was recorded, convinced the TWRA of when it was taken. Superimposing photos of deer taken with the same camera showed the feline was far larger than a housecat—nearly as long as the deer. Photo analysis proved the cat wasn’t doctored or added later. And finally, the TWRA confirmed the location by returning to the scene and matching the tree, soybeans and path the cat walked along. “The TWRA can confirm there was, on September 20, 2015, a cougar in Obion County, Tennessee,” a statement read.

The problem? With the exception of Southern Florida’s small, endangered black panther population, cougars have been extinct east of the Mississippi River since the 1930s.

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