Trails, Tails and Tales   by Gordon Respess, Naturalist, Dauset Trails Nature Center

   This article was published 12-7-95 in the Jackson Progress-Argus newspaper, Jackson Georgia

    The night air was thick with humidity and anticipation. It had been four days since she had last eaten.
Grasshoppers were fairly tasty, but not very filling. She had to keep moving and search for a satisfying meal
that would calm her quick temper. The muggy air was like a natural sauna that only mosquitos seem to enjoy.
The pesky insects didnít bother her too much, only when they found her nose.

   Quietly padding through the dense tangle of briars, scrub oak and palmetto, she would never know of the plentiful food supply and space her ancestors once hunted for survival. A chuck-wills-widow called out, breaking the night's drone of crickets and frogs. She looked up and tested the air with her sensitive nose. Nothing as far as she could smell. Her night-vision was excellent, taking in all of her surroundings, despite only a quarter moon and limited starlight to guide her way.

   The more she traveled, the deeper she plunged into the forest. Nearing a creek, she paused and again tested the air.
Her senses ignited as she detected a faint odor of some animal. She cautiously crept towards the direction of the smell.

   The scent became more pungent as she carefully picked her way around fallen trees along the creek bank. Suddenly, she froze her movement and crouched low to the ground on her belly. Something was close. The smell was stronger than ever.

{Start here from the newsletter:}

   The creek began to widen and soon was swallowed by a large pond. Further ahead, a shadowy brush-pile of sticks, mud and leaves solidly packed together over the water at the edge of the pond. The smell came from that direction.

   She remained crouched and waited and watched for any movement. There! Something was swimming in the water. Beaver! And it was moving towards her! She secured her footing, ready to attack.

   Without warning, a loud "Crack!" echoed through the trees as another beaver smacked its wide, flat tail on the water's surface. Danger! the sound warned. With a small splash, the potential meal quickly dove under the water and swam to the safety of its lodge.

   Another meal lost. But with courage and determination, and an angry stomach, she continued her search, covering several miles on her quest. Coming to a clearing, she immediately picked up a scent too intriguing to pass.

   It was like nothing she had ever smelled before. No animal she had ever caught had this terrible odor; not even the skunk that sprayed her two months earlier. Curious, she slowly crept forward and sniffed.

   The blackness in which she hunted began to fade to white. Suddenly, her whole world was a blaze of blinding light that engulfed her surroundings. She could not see. She heard a loud, muffled noise that no beast had ever made.

   Panic overcame her senses and she ran as fast as she was able-away from the light-away from the scary noise- and away from a semi-truck hauling cargo on the back wooded highway. Her ancestors would never know of the loss of habitat she faced as prey became scattered and scarce.

   She continued to run until her fear escaped her. Exhausted, she slowed to a walk and found a stump filled with rain. She eagerly quenched her thirst but still was obsessed with hunger.

   Looking for anything, she slipped deeper into the forest always aware of every sound, site, and smell she encountered. Then, there it was. This was a smell she remembered that provided a delicious meal to keep her full for a week. She continued further and the smell grew stronger.

   She increased her pace for a short distance and then slowed, carefully placing each step with the fullest of concentration. Before her was a track. And judging by the intensity of the smell, it was fresh. Picking up her pace again, she stalked onward.

   The smell grew in strength. With nerves and muscles exploding with adrenaline, she crouched again, waiting and watching.

   A quick "snort" sound shot through the air. Then another. The small group of deer, grazing on a patch of wild strawberries, grew nervous. Something was wrong, but they did not know what is was.

   One buck looked up and gave two snorts and stamped his hoof. Danger! Run!

   Kicking up a wave of leaves and pine straw, the cougar dug in and pursued the deer. The chase was on!

   Easily catching up with the deer, the cougar focused on a young doe and overcame it. Leaping onto the deer's back in a whirlwind of claws, the cougar sank its long, sharp teeth into the deer's neck. With one bite, the bones were instantly crushed. Ravenous, the cougar consumed a meal well worth her trouble.

   Long ago, cougars roamed the entire North American continent. Today, cougars are only plentiful in the western mountain and desert regions. The only cougar left in the east is actually a sub-species called the Florida panther. Ideally, a cat of this caliber needs at least 200 square miles of space to roam and hunt. Due primarily to habitat loss-inbreeding-genetic deformities, this feline is close to extinction. The cougar and Florida panther are similar in appearance, but the Florida panther has a kink in the end of its tail that resembles a "J." The introduction of western cougar into Florida may be the only way to save the genetic beauty of this noble creature.

   We are proud to have recently received [1995] a cougar for Dauset Trails and invite you to see this wildlife wonder.