On the morning of April 2, Mark Walker saw three panthers walking single file on the snow near Lake Eligo in Craftsbury. Later, when scat collected from their trail was verified to contain hairs from the front paw of a panther, it confirmed the presence in Vermont of an animal that is widely believed to have been extirpated from the state. Over the years, there have been hundreds of reported sightings but no good physical evidence to support the eyewitness accounts, so panther sighters have been greeted mostly with raised eyebrows.
Now, the questions surrounding the presence of the eastern species of panther, also known as the cougar, mountain lion, and catamount, have become more complex.
At the very least, there is proof that one day last springthere were three panthers in Craftsbury. But where did they come from?
One explanation offered regularly for their presence is that they are formerly captive animals that have escaped or been released. Game farms in other states do sell panther kittens, and one such animal was confiscated in 1982 at a private campground in Eden after it attacked a three year old girl, despite being on a leash. A panther shot in the Adirondacks last year was positively identified as a released captive.
While it is now illegal to keep a panther in Vermont, there are one or two people who reportedly do keep a panther, having owned it long enough that they were grandfathered in. In Massachusetts, however, 50 people are licensed to own panthers, and presumably they all do.
Cedric Alexander, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, said of the panthers spotted in Craftsbury this spring, "I believe that they represent a family group with an adult female and her offspring, a two year old male and a smaller two year old female... It's hard to pass all three of them off as escaped, it's just not as plausible. Two of them were probably born in the wild."
He offered two previously reported sightings as clues to the possible history of the family. In May 1992, two spotted kittens were reported within 1/3 of a mile of last spring's Craftsbury confirmation. And in August 1993, some campers from Texas reported a family group of three at Lake Elmore, about ten miles away as the crow flies - or the panther runs.
So, if the kittens were born in the wild, who's willing to take the next step and suggest they were also conceived in the wild?
Ron Lewis, of Brandon, who maintains a database of sightings for the New England Panther Research Alliance, will gladly step forward. "I believe there is a breeding population," Lewis said. "I don't know how many. They're very nomadic although there do seem to be various hotspots. Springfield and Rochester have each had ten reported sightings."
Lewis's records include reports of some 500 Vermont sightings dating back to 1941. He dismissed the idea that all the panthers that have been seen could be released captives. "If your neighbor had a panther as a pet, don't you think you'd know about it? Do you think someone could or would keep something like that a secret?"
Alexander said that now that the presence of panthers has been validated, the next step is to do DNA testing on a Vermont panther to determine whether it is one of the eastern subspecies or one introduced from the west or Florida or even South America. Because it is illegal to kill a panther, which is officially classified as an endangered species, any D N A testing will have to be done on a carcass discovered in the woods or the victim of a collision with a vehicle. If the population is in fact growing, a roadkilled panther is quite likely, because for the small population of Florida panthers, roadkill is the most common cause of death.