Imagine this: it's dark, you're driving home with your family just 7 miles north of Chicago in Winnetka, on a quiet, oak-lined residential street. You think you spot a large dog by the side of the road, but when you get closer...it's not a dog. Or even a coyote.
It's a cougar. No, not Courtney Cox, but the fourth-largest cat on earth (8 feet long, 200 lbs), also known as a mountain lion, puma, or catamount. Last week marked the 4th unconfirmed cougar sighting in Chicago's North Shore this year, in addition to earlier sightings in April, July, and August in nearby Glencoe.
In an effort to track the Winnetka cougar down, a wildlife expert from DeKalb, Robert Erickson, installed motion-activated infrared trail cameras all over town. But his hopes aren't very high, since cougars can cover 18 miles in a single day. He says the Winnetka cougar is probably a 2-year-old male who got kicked out of home by its mother, "like a teenager in trouble." Young cougars typically leave their mothers behind in spring and summer.
Believe it or not, cougars aren't unprecedented in Chicago. In 2008, police shot and killed a 150-pound cougar in a backyard in Roscoe Village (just a few blocks from the Addison Brown Line station) after it allegedly charged them, while the homeowner hid in the house with his wife and their 3-year-old son; here's WGN's coverage of the incident.
But Illinois doesn't have a sustained cougar population, so where are these giant cats coming from?
Tests on the cougar killed in 2008 showed a DNA link to fellow cats in South Dakota's Black Hills, meaning it would have traveled almost 1,000 miles through 3 states to wind up in a Chicagoan's backyard. The past few years, cougar spottings have been increasing throughout the Midwest, especially in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin, most of them genetically related to the Black Hills sample group.
Click here for a map of cougar sightings outside of their normal Western range.
The wandering cougars may be looking for better food sources. This summer, in particular, the cougars may have been driven east by drought, where they would've found plenty of easy meals in the forest preserves of Chicagoland, thanks to the EHD epidemic that has killed hundreds of local deer. Luckily, neither cougars nor humans can contract EHD.
If you spot a cougar in Chicagoland (and you aren't at a Viagra Triangle club), call 911 immediately. Here's an identification guide from The Cougar Network. Attacks on humans are thankfully rare, since cougars don't recognize us as prey, but you should still stay as far away from them as possible.