Posts Tagged ‘cougar’

Aaron Hall

Aaron Hall, "Lion Hunter of the Juniata" and founder of the legendary strain of Pennsylvania panther dogs.

I came across an account of an unusual breed of hunting dog that was developed in Centre County, Pennsylvania. This account comes from Extinct Animals of Pennsylvania by Henry Wharton Shoemaker. The text was originally  published in 1907, but the actual account comes from period between 1845 and 1869 in which a legendary cougar hunter named Aaron Hall was said to have killed fifty “panthers.”

Hall’s legendary status had left him with the sobriquet “Lion Hunter of the Juniata.” He had styled himself as the central Pennsylvania version of Davy Crockett.

And like any great hunter of those days, he had a pack of hunting dogs that helped him pursue his quarry.

Unlike any other hunter of that day, though, he had bred a rather unusual strain of cougar hound.

His massive dogs were run in pairs that then pursued the cougar until they could catch it by the ears– one dog on each ear, very similar to how hog catch dogs are used. It is also very similar to the way that the borzoi caught wolves.  The borzoi would grab the wolf by the sides of the neck, usually two dogs on either side.

The dogs were said to be the result of breeding old-type bulldogs, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, and bloodhounds together to produce a superior cougar hound. They dogs were said to have been so large that a former Pennsylvania game commissioner was able to ride one of them.

I have some issues with the veracity of these claims, but it is known that the mastiff-type dogs can be used to hunt large cats. Fila Brasileiros were used to hunt jaguars and South American cougars, and the Dogos Argentinos were also used to hunt cougars in their native country. Newfoundland dogs were very common in America at the time and were considered an appropriate dog to use for hunting various species of game, although waterfowling was their most common purpose. Bulldogs were probably chosen for their tenacity and ability to grip recalcitrant and powerful quarry, and bloodhounds have legendary noses. The mixture makes sense.

However, the story about the dogs grabbing the cats by the ears is a bit too far fetched for me to accept. A cougar is a very strong and agile animal. If cornered by dogs, it is going to fight very hard. Because its ears aren’t that large, my guess is that the dogs would have a very hard time holding the cats by the ears. They would simply be clawed to pieces, even if they did manage to get them by the ears.

Keep in mind that a cougar can kill a lone wolf, and it wouldn’t have very much trouble killing a domestic dog of any size. (There is a very good account of a cougar killing at captive wolf in Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s Wolves at Our Door.) Most modern cougar hounds tree the cats or hold them at bay. Very few of them engage in mortal combat with the cats. I seriously doubt that any dog would be able to fight a cougar until it was able to grab it by the ears.

Unless Hall or Sober were very small men, I seriously doubt that he could ride any dogs resulting from his crossbreeding. The biggest mastiffs have exceeded two hundred pounds, but if you’re crossing in smaller bulldogs, bloodhounds, and the slightly smaller Newfoundland of the day, it is very unlikely that anyone would be able to produce animals of that size.

Shoemaker wrote a lot about the folk culture of rural Pennsylvania, and theis story sounds a lot like mountain person’s tall tale. Mountain culture in Pennsylvania isn’t that different from mountain culture here, and I can tell you that telling stories like this one are almost de rigueur, especially when someone starts talking about his hunting dogs. Maybe Shoemaker was playing around with this lore, or maybe someone was playing a trick on him. After all, he was an outsider, a graduate of Columbia and a native New Yorker who had grown up in India. Such outsiders are very often told tall stories, for nothing can make a rural person with limited educational and economic opportunities feel better than when he or she gets some outsider to believe some outlandish story.

He does mention that many people of this region were keeping cougar dogs, but most of the dogs used to hunt cougars were “fices” or “whippets.”

One of the great ironies about cougars is that they were known for having a great deal of fear of dogs. Although they were capable of killing a dog easily, they normally would run if pursued by a pack of them.

Normally, these pursuits end with the cougar a tree and dogs barking at them. My guess is that if a cougar had found itself being chased by Hall’s cougar dogs, it would have run for the nearest tree before the dogs could even get close to it. This would have meant that it would have been next to impossible for the dogs to grab them by the ears. (Unless those horse-sized curs could also climb trees.)

I particularly like the story about the Pennsylvania panther dogs, but I am very skeptical that this story is real. Maybe Hall really did have big cougar hounds, but they didn’t hunt in exactly in the way described. Maybe they held the cats at a bay or pushed them into the trees. Some of them were probably much larger than the typical hunting dog of the region, and thus, they were given such an outlandish size.

Hall’s strain of panther dog went extinct shortly after his death in 1892. We can never really know for sure, but I think the chances of these dogs hunting in the way described are not very good.  I can’t imagine that a cougar would allow itself to be held by the ears in such a fashion.

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The animal is reported to be a mountain lion/cougar/puma (all the same animal) living in Roane County, WV. The photo was taken in an area of the county in which several people claim to have seen the “fell beast.”

However, the photo is so grainy that we really can’t tell much. All we have is an image of animal slinking through the undergrowth. We have no scale on which to judge this specimen’s size.

I don’t think this particular animal is Puma concolor.

It is probably one of two common species that aren’t often seen, even by experienced woodsmen.

It is hard to discern the shape of the head, but I think it looks a bit doglike.

However, the length of the tail is also quite hard to discern.

I am thinking that this is a longer-tailed animal with a dog-like face.  In which case, the animal we’re looking at is the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Gray foxes are interesting animals in that they do have a cat-like body and move with the sleek motion of a small cat. In fact, some Latin American countries call these animals “mountain cats” or “deer cats.” They often shed out a lot of their coat in the summer months, exposing a kind of tawny or grayish undercoat.

Like this one:


Or this one:


And if you saw this one going through the undergrowth, in an instant you’d shout “mountain lion!”


These are all gray foxes. In the summer months, some individuals shed almost their entire coats. In this phase, they are called “Samson foxes”– because they lose a lot of their hair.

Gray foxes also have lots of black on the top of their tails. They have an ability to raise the  black hair on their tails whenever they feel threatened, just the same way that dogs raise their hackles.

Now, it could also be a “cross fox,” which is a color phase of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes fulva). Cross foxes do occur in the wild in West Virginia, but they are quite rare. This form is an intermediate between the normal red fox and the melanistic and silver forms. However, this particular animal has now white on the tip of its tail, which is the main identifying mark for the red fox.

However, if this specimen’s tail is short, then we do have a feline that could easily fit the bill.

The smallest species of lynx lives in these woods. The bobcat or red lynx (Lynx rufus). In this part of the world, it is not unsual to see a grayish bobcats with very faint spots.


Now, why do I not jump onto the puma/cougar/mountain lion bandwagon?

I do think it’s possible for a small remnant population of cougar to still live in West Virginia. West Virginia is rugged terrain, and it has large areas without large-scale settlement. My guess is that if one is going to be found in West Virginia, though, there are far more remote areas than this place, which isn’t that far from both Parkersburg and Charleston. My guess is that one would turn up in the Monogahela National Forest or some other area in the High Alleghenies, not in the foothill.

My own amateur zoologist’s opinion is that this animal is a Samson gray fox.

Just so you can get an idea of how gray foxes move, I am posting this video of a Jack Russell, which were bred to bolt foxes(!) and an imprinted gray fox:


You can see how a gray fox can be mistaken for a cat, and there is a reason why they move so much like cats.

You see, gray foxes retain an interesting behavior that was once common among primitive wild dogs. Gray foxes are not bound to a terrestrial existence. They can still climb trees. They share this trait with the raccoon dog and their close cousin, the island fox of the Channel Islands.


So what do you think?

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