Panthers in the Suburbs

[The op-ed below appeared in the Westchester Herald (ten or so pages after Ed Koch’s movie review and immediately following  Congressmember Nina Lowey’s piece on health care reform).  It deals with recent sightings of what appear to be a large cat in the New York suburbs.  For some good background on the issue, see this New Yorker article and this piece in a local Hudson Valley newspaper.]

pantherReactions to the unconfirmed sightings of panthers in the Palisades and local townships bring a serious ecological dilemma into focus.  Assuming this animal(s) is an eastern panther and not an escaped exotic pet, it is a member of a population of animals once thought extirpated from the Northeast.  That would make any plan to trap the cat and place it in captivity both ecologically misguided and potentially violative of the Endangered Species Act.  The plan also represents a hyperventilated response to understandable community unease.  It would be much better to slow down and carefully consider the implications of the animal’s presence as well as what to do about it.

Let’s be clear, first, about what we are talking about.  The term “panther” refers to both jaguars and cougars.  Cougars are native to the northeastern United States; jaguars are not.  Eastern panthers are a species of cougar.  The cat we’re talking about is probably not an eastern panther.  The professional tracker who has examined the signs and kills of the animal believes it is more likely a jaguar or some other illegally imported large cat.  Furthermore, those who have glimpsed the animal say it is black, whereas cougars are tawny.  If this animal wandering around the New York suburbs is a jaguar, it needs to be found and removed from the area immediately.

However, what if it isn’t?  Eastern panthers are classified by the Fish and Wildlife Service as “critically endangered.”   Though the eastern panther is (or was) biologically identical to panthers elsewhere in the United States, the population of cats in the eastern region is protected under the Endangered Species Act (much as certain regional salmon populations are protected even though salmon as a species are not).  Therefore, one cannot “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect [the panther], or . . .  attempt to engage in any such conduct.” without the express permission of the Secretary of the Interior.

But putting legalities aside, consider the big picture.  Rockland County, like almost everywhere else in the state, is overrun by deer.  The deer have proliferated to such an extent that they browse the local vegetation into the ground (to say nothing of gardens) and cause significant erosion and other problems.  They also present an ever-present and growing hazard to drivers. The reason for the deer’s abundance lies with the expanding habitat created by suburban geography and the absence of predators.

Deer favor edge habitat – places featuring a mixture of open and forested lands.  Thus, deer like suburban towns possibly even more than the folks who actually pay to live there.  The other thing deer love about suburban life is that nothing eats them.  We long ago eradicated wolves from the northeast because we feared them (this despite the fact that in the history of the United States, there has never been a fatal attack on a human by a wolf).  The panthers’ extermination soon followed.  Without any natural check on their numbers and with a vast new area to roam and browse, the deer population exploded.  So too, for that matter, has the number of coyotes.

What this all means is that the region’s ecosystem has tilted seriously out of balance.  We have a lot of work to do to restore equilibrium but we lack the will to do it.  Even as we curse the deer who eat our shrubbery and bound in front of our cars, we move swiftly to eliminate any animals that prey upon them.  To those who believe hunting is the answer, I would just ask how close to your homes and families you would want hunters to roam.  Furthermore, hunters – despite their protestations to the contrary – do not and never have effectively controlled deer populations.

The upshot of all this is that predators present both opportunity and risk.  Any actions taken should account for both as well as comply with the law.  If there is indeed a panther in our midst, we should celebrate nature’s resilience even as we take common sense measures to safeguard both people and the cat(s).

–David Cassuto

4 Responses

  1. […] This post was Twitted by pacelawlibrary […]

  2. The question is, beyond reaching people through blawgs, how do we convince the public that predators are a good thing? Contrary to meat eating, this is not an issue of laziness and habit as it is of unfounded fear. If there is one thing Americans are great at doing, however, is reaching stubborn positions based on unreasonable fear. Yes, of course, let us celebrate nature finding ways to keep the panther alive, if that is indeed the case. I worry, though, that the same fear that killed the wolves is far too instilled.

  3. […] Panthers in the Suburbs « Animal Blawg animalblawg.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/panthers-in-the-suburbs – view page – cached #Animal Blawg RSS Feed Animal Blawg » Panthers in the Suburbs Comments Feed Animal Blawg Animal Blawg: An Introduction Another Look at Banning Depictions of Cruelty to Animals — From the page […]

  4. […] There are reports of mountain lions in the Catskills and Adirondacks. There are conspiracy theories that the New York DEC has actually released a few. There has also been cougar scat and hair samples found in the northeast spanning from upstate New York to Maine.  The general consensus seems to be that these are released captive pets and not a small surviving population nor a controlled re-introduced one (see related post here). […]

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