I was a teenager in 2004 when I spotted the tracks, in a summer-dried creekbed not far from my family’s home in small-town West Tennessee. I examined them over and over again, first by memory and then with my worn-out field guides, confirming without a doubt that they came from a puma.
The puma— also known as the cougar or mountain lion— is Tennessee’s very own unicorn. Though the official word is that these elusive animals vanished from the state in the early 1900s, residents never stopped believing, and often reporting, their continued existence. In fact, when I had called TWRA with excitement after spotting tracks, the wardens were unimpressed, casually mentioning that they’d had a few reported cougar sightings in my county. They suspected that the cats were illegal exotic pets from Memphis, released along I-40 when their owners tired of them.
The sightings continued, though, and have only gained momentum in recent years. Since 2015, there have been dozens of confirmed sightings of pumas on West Tennessee’s trail cameras and hundreds of unconfirmed sightings marked only by the witness’s word. At this point, there’s no doubt: the cougar is back in Tennessee.
The intriguing question, though, is whether they were ever truly gone. Wildlife officials currently believe that pumas have moved back to our state by migrating from the West. Others believe that small populations of pumas always existed in the remote mountains of East Tennessee and have simply recovered enough to come out of hiding. Personally, I think both are true, and that a few individuals from our eastern mountains are now joining with their distant cousins from the West.
Of course, that raises the question of how an animal as large as a cougar could have possibly gone unnoticed— or at least unproven— for over a century. But, if any animal can evade detection, it’s a puma. Mountain lions spend their days unseen, coming out only at twilight to hunt, usually far from any human settlements. They very rarely step in mud, so it’s rare for people to find their tracks in areas like Tennessee, where snow is uncommon, and many parts of rural Tennessee have few trail cameras and are rarely explored. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that these secretive cats managed to hide for over a century.
Regardless of whether pumas were ever truly absent from this state, we know now that they’ve here now, and that they need protection so they can continue their recovery.