There have been recent news stories about a cougar seen in and around town over the past few days. The most recent update had said Fish & Game had followed its tracks down to a river, and thought it had left the area.
Last night, however, just as we were finishing up seeing patients, David Day, one of our PAs got a call from his wife, who said that their 10-year old daughter and a friend had been sledding in Smith Park (which is sort of the main park in the middle of town, and not more than two blocks from my medical office). While sledding, they had run across some large cat tracks. Jokingly, they said it must be the "Rexburg cougar" they had heard about in the news and at school. After following the tracks for a while, they decided to go across the street to the friend's house to get a camera, so they could take some pictures of the tracks.
This they did, but upon their return and just as they were about to enter a stand in the trees, one of the girls stopped, saying she just had a really bad feeling, and didn't want to go back over there. The other girl teased her a little and they stood there a few minutes before finally deciding to go back to the friend's house. Just as they turned to go, one of the girls spotted movement in one of the trees, which drew her eyes to focus on the Rexburg cougar, right there in the tree!
At this point both girls skedaddled back across the street and indoors, excitedly relating their experience to the other girl's mother who, skeptical but curious, scanned the trees across the street with binoculars. At length she spotted what appeared to be a "yellow tail hanging down, and possibly the backside of a cougar." After a minute, the big cat moved, and lept into another tree close by.
At this point, the woman called the police, who said they would drive by the park, but that really this was a Fish & Game issue, and that she should call them (presumably because the lion had not yet broken any laws). So, she followed their advice, and got a recording telling her Fish & Game was closed for the evening.
Well, upon hearing the story and realizing this news was less than a half hour old, Dave, Dr. Watson, Mary Zollinger and I decided to check things out for ourselves. After a quick trip home to don coat and boots, we met back at ground zero, armed with our high-powered xenon flashlights Dr. Zollinger gave us for Christmas.
Somewhat timidly at first, and then more boldly, we began to explore the park, utilizing the time-honored search grid known as "random wandering." We nearly made ourselves dizzy, alternately shining our searchlights into the foliage above, and down on the snow beneath, all the while criss-crossing around the park aimlessly, shining our searchlights into every nook and cranny.
After a fruitless half-hour, I was nearly frozen, and starting to wonder about the credibility of our sources. Grandpa Darce always says, "Tracks make thin soup!" We couldn't have even started the broth with what we found. Finally, we gave up. I didn't get my coveted photo of a cougar in the wild, which I'm sure they would have put in the paper (or, possibly, National Geographic), but I did capture these two schmucks who were wandering around in the bitter cold looking for a mountain lion in the middle of town, that turned out to be just a wild goose.
So, did this story simply come from the active imaginations of two ten year old girls? Was there just a large tabby loitering in the park, sharpening its claws in the pine trees? Did the play of light and shadow, and the heat of the moment have their mother seeing things too? We'll never know, but consider this: the next day, Dave drove his daughter over to the park so she could point out exactly where the "sighting" occurred. Not only could she point out the very tree, but the exact branch the big cat was perched on. When Dave told her to stay there while he took a closer look, his normally level-headed and non-dramatic daughter began to tremble and almost to cry, saying, "No! Dad! You're not going out there!" She was still absolutely terrified, a whole day later!