“People know they’re here.” John Lutz & EPRN – 47 Years of Investigating Big Cats in the East.
Guest blog by Susan Fair
At a small convenience store a few miles from big cat researcher John Lutz’s home in rural West Virginia, a man behind the counter gestures dramatically at the thickly wooded rolling hills outside. “You better believe there’s big cats out there – I seen ‘em myself!” he says.
It’s an ominous beginning to a trip to meet Eastern Puma Research Network founder John Lutz – kind of like the start to a bad Syfy channel movie – but the man quickly adds, “But that John is a heck of a nice guy!”
Reaching Lutz’s rancher – home base for EPRN – you spy a pair of stray housecats unaware of the ironic sight they pose enjoying the shade beneath Lutz’s SUV – the one with the sign instructing you to “Report cougar/panther sightings.”
Inside the house Lutz, 71, who a few days before returned late from a 427 mile road trip to check out possible cougar tracks in Pennsylvania (“They were just dog tracks,” he says) only to get called out on a traumatic injury call with the Maysville Volunteer Fire Department, stacks fat binders onto his dining room table. The binders hold reports of eastern cougar sightings.
Lutz doesn’t maintain an online database, but the thickness of the binders tells the tale – Lutz has been investigating sightings of panthers and cougars east of the Mississippi since 1965.
Beginning as an investigator of unexplained phenomena, Lutz earned the distinction of working with law enforcement on strange cases. He began focusing on big cats around 1980 when, he says, “the stories started picking up.” He has since taken thousands of reports of out-of-place cats and says he has seen several, on one occasion watching a black panther catch fish in a stream in Wellsboro, PA.
Lutz’s interest in big cats is sometimes misinterpreted. “A DNR officer showed up here. Said ‘I want to come in and look around – I hear you have a mountain lion.’” Lutz sent him away to get a search warrant; the officer returned with warrant in hand but left without finding anything more than a variety of cougar-themed knick knacks. Another time “A woman called and wanted to rent a cougar from me to take to her daughter’s ballgame, because the team was ‘The Cougars.’”
Reports of eastern cougars continue to roll in at EPRN. Currently Lutz says the Tidewater area of Virginia is very active, and sightings are also high in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
He says the free-ranging eastern cougar is smaller in size than the western cougar and doesn’t pose a big danger. It’s the “rewilding” organizations that are concerning him now, he says, and he maintains that such groups may already be covertly introducing western cougars into the East, accounting for recent sightings of larger cats. “If you bring in more western cougars you’re going to have more killing and injury,” he says.
Lutz says as long as big cat reports keep coming in “I’ll keep doing them, health allowing.” He doesn’t believe most people would be shocked to have confirmation that there are big cats in the East. “It’s the DNR that says, ‘no, they’re not here.’ I don’t think people would be surprised. People know they’re here. They’re seeing them.”
Visit John Lutz at his website to learn more about the Eastern Puma Research Network.
Susan Fair lives on the shoulder of South Mountain in rural Maryland, where she works for a public library system. She can also be found writing for numerous publications, exploring the weird and offbeat, and working at an eclectic museum where she often eats her lunch next to a mummified arm.