Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cougar Shot and Killed in Downtown El Paso

Here is one from a week or so ago that I missed…

According to the Texas Hunting website, and other sources, a 102 lb. mountain lion (Puma concolor) strolled right into downtown El Paso the week of May 14. The lion was seen in various locales around the city before wandering into a parking garage that, ironically enough, is used by Texas Parks & Wildlife employees.

Officials were able to shoot the cougar with a tranquilizer dart but it leaped from the second floor of the parking facility and bolted in an attempt to escape. The tranquilizer dosage may have been off as the mountain lion seemed unaffected for several minutes. During this time, the big cat ran through a schoolyard and onto the property of a car wash. Authorities, after evacuating the employees and customers, closed the security gate of the property in an attempt to hem in the lion. At this time the authorities were able to dart the cat a second time. Again, however, the drug proved ineffective and the animal took off again and was on the verge of escaping a second time. Officials deemed the agitated cougar a serious threat to the public at that time and put it down.

El Paso is a city of nearly 650,000 people and lies in the westernmost part of the state. When the population of Juarez, Mexico, which lies just across the Rio Grande River, is added, more than 2 million people live in the El Paso metropolitan area. Despite the large population, El Paso sits in some pretty rugged country. The Franklin, Juarez, and Hueco mountains border or lie within the city limits. In addition, the Rio Grande River flows just a mile from the heart of the city. The area constitutes prime cougar habitat. Just three years ago, a game warden shot and killed a mountain lion in a west El Paso neighborhood so this was not an isolated incident.

Why this mountain lion decided to take a tour of downtown El Paso is not clear. It is possible it was sick, hurt, or seeking a water source. It is also possible, at least in my opinion, that these big cats are becoming more comfortable living in close proximity to populated areas. If so, more and more incidents along the lines of what happened in El Paso are going to occur across Texas.

I believe mountain lions are making a comeback across the state. The TPWD does not agree and continues to hold to the premise that these big cats maintain breeding populations only in the Trans-Pecos region and along the Rio Grande River in deep south Texas. Cougar sightings farther east are often dismissed as misidentifications or escaped pets. I found it humorous that, for all practical purposes, this mountain lion walked right into the offices of the TPWD. I’m afraid it will take a similar incident somewhere in east Texas for officials before officials recognize these big cats are returning to their old habitats.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Buffalo Bill and the Bones of Bigfoot

You would never know it from the large number of books and movies made about the era, but the days of the American “Old West” were shockingly few. Generally, the time period is considered to be the years following the end of the Civil War up to, and even this is very generous, the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920; however, what the period lacked in longevity it more than made up for with the many historically important events that took place. The quest to fulfill “Manifest Destiny” was in overdrive, treaties with foreign nations were forged, wars were fought against and treaties forced upon native peoples, technology advanced greatly, and immigrants flooded west into the frontier. It was a time when the federal government struggled to maintain law and order in its territories and the people therein. Colorful characters were the rule of the day. One of the most colorful of all was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

William Frederick Cody was born in the Iowa Territory on February 26, 1846. To say he had a diverse career would be an understatement. At one time or another, Cody is said to have been a trapper, bullwhacker, miner, Pony Express rider, wagon master, stagecoach driver, and hotel manager. He is best known, however, for being a buffalo hunter (hence his nickname), acting as Chief Scout for the Fifth Cavalry during the Plains Indian Wars (for which he won the Medal of Honor), and, of course, for his world famous Wild West Shows. What most do not know is that William F. Cody may have been presented with the remains of a sasquatch in 1871.

In his autobiography, The Life of Honorable William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill recounted the following interesting experience that occurred while he was still acting as a scout for the U.S. Army:

"While we were in the sand hills, scouting the Niobrara country, the Pawnee Indians brought into camp some very large bones, one of which the surgeon of the expedition pronounced to be the thigh-bone of a human being. The Indians claimed that the bones they had found were those of a person belonging to a race of people who a long time ago lived in this country; that there was once a race of men on the earth whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man, and they were so swift and powerful that they could run along-side of a buffalo, and, taking the animal in one arm, could tear off a leg and eat the meat as they walked."

Cody continued:

“These giants denied the existence of a Great Spirit, and when they heard the thunder or saw the lightning they laughed at it and said that they were greater than either. This so displeased the Great Spirit that he caused a great rain-storm to come, and the water kept rising higher and higher so that it drove those proud and conceited giants from the low grounds to the hills, and thence to the mountains, but at last even the mountain tops were submerged, and then those mammoth men were all drowned. After the flood had subsided, the Great Spirit came to the conclusion that he had made man too large and powerful, and that he would therefore correct the mistake by creating a race of men of smaller size and less strength. This is the reason, say the Indians, that modern men are small and not like the giants of old, and they claim that this story is a matter of Indian history, which has been handed down among them from time immemorial. As we had no wagons with us at the time this large and heavy bone was found, we were obliged to leave it.”

What is interesting here is that Cody claims the thigh-bone was examined by a physician and determined to be that of a human. While medicine in the latter half of the 19th century was not anywhere nearly as advanced as it is today, you would think it would be unlikely for a doctor, in this case a surgeon, with extensive training in anatomy to mistake an animal bone for a human femur. A much more likely scenario would be the doctor being able to determine the bone was not of human origin but unable to identify the animal from which it came...kind of an “I don’t know what it is but know for sure what it isn’t” sort of thing. When you get right down to it there just are not any documented animals living in North America, then or now, whose leg bones could be misidentified by a competent surgeon as belonging to a human. Others found the account compelling as well. The evidence was convincing enough that the story got all the way back east to Yale College and one Professor Othniel Charles Marsh, head of the Paleontology Department, was sufficiently intrigued to lead fossil hunting expeditions into the area later that year in search of remains of these giants.

One of the continuous arguments used by those who do not believe the sasquatch is a real animal is that there is no physical evidence to support its existence. This is, of course, debatable as samples of scat and hair have been located that defy classification. Other evidence, like footprints, continue to show up as well. Something is leaving tracks, and even the most hardened of skeptics hesitates to say all such tracks could be hoaxes. Getting back to the original point, when skeptics say there is no physical evidence, what they are usually getting at is that no body or physical remains have been found or acquired. In the case of the Pawnee presentation of bones to Buffalo Bill, we may very well have had the evidence so many continue to seek. Put it all together and it is quite intriguing. Think about it. A well-known historical figure, who was very image-conscious, gave his eyewitness account of unusually large human-looking bones in his autobiography. A medical professional, admittedly unnamed, is said to have identified the remains as human. Add in the Pawnee legend of the huge and powerful bipedal creatures that hunted bison without the use of any sort of weapon, and it is truly compelling. Proof? Sadly, no, but compelling nonetheless.

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to Buffalo Bill is not easy. He truly was an incredibly accomplished man but was also guilty of embellishing many a tale when it suited him. Still, in the case of the incident in question, I can think of no reason Cody would have fabricated the story. Cody was certainly guilty from time to time of telling tall tales in order to enhance his image for financial gain. He was one of the first heroes featured in dime novels and did all he could to maintain his rough and tumble reputation. His Wild West Show certainly did not give historically accurate accounts of battles and events that had transpired between the army and the Native Americans; however, these were the actions of a showman who was trying to entertain and sell tickets. The short section in his autobiography describing the event in question doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing Cody would embellish as it was not going to enhance his frontiersman image or help make his show more popular to the masses.

While the incident has the ring of truth to it, in my opinion, there really is no way to ever know for sure. Were the bones from a large primate or some other more common animal? Did the incident ever really take place at all? Again, unless someone is able to discover additional documentation of the event, we will never know. Regardless, the story has only added to the legend of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and picked up steam among sasquatch enthusiasts over the last several years.

Truly, William F. Cody led a fascinating life. Alas, it could have been even more interesting if he had kept the bones presented to him by the Pawnee and sent them to a university for further study.

Just think, if he had done so, he might now be known as Bigfoot Bill.

*You can read William F. Cody’s biography, The Life of Honorable William F. Cody for free at You can read the specific passage discussed in this post here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Louisiana Giant Snake Photo: Is it Real?

A reader sent me the picture below of a giant snake slithering down the side of a road. The reader did not claim to have taken the picture but said the story was that the snake was photographed near the Morganza Spillway near Krotz Springs, Louisiana as it fled the impending flood waters from the swollen Mississippi River.

I have no idea if the photo is genuine. I’m guessing it is either a clever fake or a genuine photo of a snake from some other part of the world (though I can't tell just what species it might be). I am leaning toward a good photoshop job. The coloration and head shape look "mamba-like" to me. The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a very long snake, and does hold its head up high when moving, but is not close to the length represented in this photo. In addition, there is something about the shadow beneath the snake’s head that doesn’t look quite right to me. Just my opinion but I’ve been wrong before.

If it is a hoax the perpetrator is playing off a real story. The Morganza Spillway has been opened in an attempt to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from potentially devastating flooding. Saving these two highly populous areas required flooding hundreds of acres of rural forest and farmland and the animals of the area are on the move as documented here by CNN.

In any case, it is a fun picture. I will be curious to see if it is debunked quickly.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bear "Traps" Set in Upshur County, Texas

I have just returned from a weekend bear hunt in Upshur County, Texas. It was not a literal bear hunt, of course; rather, it was a trip to interview a witness who claims to have seen four black bears (Ursus americanus) on her property back in November of last year. The witness, who owns 80 acres that back up to the bottoms of Cypress Creek, told the story of how she followed her German shepherd around to the back of her house that night leading to the encounter with the bears. You can read the details of her original sighting, as written up by my friend Ken Stewart, here.

Ken and I arrived at the property of the witness shortly after lunchtime on Saturday 5/14. While Ken has known the property owner for years, this was my chance to meet her for the first time. She was as delightful a person as you could hope to meet and upon hearing her story in a face-to-face setting have no doubt she saw bears and not hogs. She gladly gave us permission to access her property and put up game cameras in the hopes of getting photos of the bears. Ken and I hiked the property for more than two hours and it is absolutely ideal. Behind the house is a pasture, tree line, and then another pasture. Behind the second pasture the land drops off into the bottoms of a small branch feeding Cypress Creek. Hardwoods and their bounty are everywhere and the area is rich with blackberry bushes and muscadine grape vines just about to ripen. The area is wonderfully suited for all manner of wildlife.

Ken and I chose a couple of locations where game trails converged to place the cameras. I had purchased a product meant to attract bears and applied it liberally, in liquid form and powder form, to the trees and vegetation in front of the cameras. The aroma was, indeed, very strong and have little doubt that if the bears are still in the area they will come in to investigate. The product came highly recommended and I have high hopes that it will do the trick.

Ken and I had the good fortune to run into the gentleman who leases the pastures in order to run cattle. He was concerned about the safety of the property owner and, no doubt, his livestock and asked a lot of questions about black bear. We made it very clear that we were not bear experts before telling him that, if common sense is used, in all likelihood nobody has anything to worry about. For her part, the property owner is pleased the bears are there. She said she never felt threatened and likes the idea of their being around at least some of the time. It was during the course of this discussion that this gentleman shared an encounter of his own. He said that he saw a very large black animal of some sort in an area of heavy brush near the fence-line at the rear of the property. He was a bit perplexed as he could not identify it. He described it as being wider than a man and very heavy. He said that the animal would have been about chest high to him (I estimate his height at 6’0”) and probably weighed in the neighborhood of 500-600 lbs. He was sure it was neither hog nor bear. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speculate farther on what it might have been. He just said that, as a cattleman, he was used to seeing large animals and estimating weight. He said, “I don’t know what it was but I know what it wasn’t. It was no cow or bear.” The witness did not feel the animal could have been a hog either due to how high it stood. What it could be can only be speculated upon but it is interesting as this is a man who knows his animals. Hopefully, we’ll get a photo that explains this mystery as well.

The entire area has a long history of cougar and black panther sightings as well. On this trip alone I spoke to three different people who, in a very nonchalant manner, described experiences with large black cats. Throw in a handful of sasquatch sightings and you have a very exciting research location. I will be sure to post updates as pictures from our cameras become available. It is going to be at least 4 weeks before I return to check on them.

Fingers crossed…

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Invasive Red-bellied Pacu Caught in Lake Conroe

According to an article posted on the website, a red- bellied pacu (Piaractus brachyomus), a distant cousin to the piranha, was caught in Lake Conroe by a catfish angler last week.

The article, written by Howard Roden, tells the story of Kenneth Evans who was out fishing for cats on Monday May 2nd. Evans had been having pretty good luck but had no idea what he was about to run into when his rod bowed over for the ninth time that day.

“I was really startled,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think.”

The fish was 13 inches long and weighed in right at 3 lbs. The body shape of the fish, the orange colored belly, and the prominent teeth led Evans to the conclusion he had landed a piranha. According to Evans, the fish made a “weird sound” and clamped down on a stick presented in front of its mouth like a pit bull.

Game Warden Brannon Menkowsky is confident the fish is a pacu and not a piranha. The teeth are the key to properly identifying the fish according to Menkowsky. The piranha has razor sharp teeth meant to rip off bite-sized chunks of flesh. The pacu, by contrast, has very human-looking teeth that are designed to crush rather than rip. Pacu can be purchased legally and often are dumped into Texas waters once they outgrow their aquariums.

Menkowsky added that reports of piranhas, while not common, have come in to his office at least two other times over the last eight years. Both of these reports originated from Lake Conroe. A fellow Game Warden, Derwin Biggerstaff, says he gets calls about once a year about “piranhas.”

This is the second time in the last year I’ve heard of a red-bellied pacu being pulled out of Texas waters. As documented on this site here, a lady I went to college with reported to me that her son pulled a pacu from a private lake near Leander outside of Austin. She sent me the photo and even posted a short video on YouTube showing her son’s unusual catch.

The pacu problem may be getting to a point where TPWD officials are going to have to address it. This invasive species is ravenous and will quickly put native species like bass and bluegill out of business if their numbers grow too large. I am aware I may be sounding like a bit of an alarmist but a recent episode of River Monsters documents that pacu can decimate native species, in this case tilapia, and even become dangerous to humans. While considered mainly vegetarians, pacu are actually omnivorous and will eat flesh. Jeremy Wade of the River Monsters program aptly demonstrates this fact as he documents attacks on New Zealand native tribesmen by this invasive species. The pacu has become known in the region as the “ball cutter” due to its preference for certain parts of the male anatomy. The Lake Conroe pacu bit a chicken gizzard meant for catfish. This would seem to prove that meat is not off their diet. I don’t point this out to insinuate that pacu will begin attacking swimmers; rather, I mention it out of concern that this invasive fish could decimate native species through competition for available food and by preying on their fry.

I cannot stress enough that releasing an exotic fish into public waters is a terrible idea. Owners do not want to kill their pets when they get too large. I get that; however, the potential harm that could be done to native species is just too great. It may sound cruel but, if a suitable home cannot be found for a pacu, it should be euthanized.

Anyone who catches a pacu or any other exotic fish species in Texas public waters should notify the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department immediately.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Sea Monster of Port Isabel

Since time immemorial men have been fascinated and lured by the sea. Explorers, treasure-seekers, fishermen, adventurers, and pirates have all plied the waters of the sea hoping, in different ways, to make their mark. But there is more to the allure of the sea than the promise of wealth. There is a sense of mystery about it. You’ve probably heard it said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor. This would be an accurate statement. The bone-crushing depths and the sheer vastness of the world’s oceans have proven formidable obstacles to overcome in our efforts to explore the sea and have left us with a sense of awe and wonder.

I think it is safe to say there is also a healthy respect born out of, to some degree, fear. The power of the ocean in nearly unimaginable but there is more to it than that. There is also a great sense of the unknown, which can spawn trepidation. Fear of what might be swimming below us in the dark depths has given birth to many frightening stories. Tales from the earliest times of seafaring have hinted at beasts that are truly terrifying. Some, like the dreaded kraken, have turned out to be based on real creatures. Other reported sea monsters, however, do not seem to match up well with animals now known to modern science. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico have spawned their own tales of sea monsters. It is one such story that I will recount now.

The year was 1938 and sport fishing had become a big draw in the south Texas town of Port Isabel. Wealthy sportsmen flocked to the Rio Grande Valley to go after trophy tarpon and various species of billfish. There was a yearly tournament called the Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo, which was later renamed the Texas International Fishing Tournament, that provided an influx of tourists and their coveted dollars annually. On August 10th of that year things took a bit of a turn. The Brownsville Herald, in a short article on the back page, devoted several paragraphs to the sighting of a huge and unknown creature in the waters off Port Isabel. According to the article, several captains and their crews along with personnel aboard several other vessels had spotted a massive creature at least 40-feet in length swimming near the surface. While the article offered no further description of the creature, the term “sea monster” was used and the frenzy began.

Theories as to what the mystery beast could be varied greatly. Sally Crowe, a stenographer for the Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo, put forth the reasonable theory that the beast might be a basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). This shark is one of the largest fish on the planet and reaches lengths approaching 40-feet. When asked how she came up with the theory that the Port Isabel sea monster might be a basking shark, Ms. Crowe replied, “I just started at the front page of a dictionary and stopped at every picture of a fish – and there it was on page 180!”

Another reasonable theory put forth on August 12th in the Brownsville Daily Herald by a Mr. Alton Hutson was that the creature in question was nothing more than a whale shark (Rhincodon typus). The whale shark is generally acknowledged to be the largest of all fishes and specimens up to and exceeding 40-feet in length are not uncommon.

Other theories ranging from giant sea turtles to Port Isabel’s very own version of the Loch Ness monster were bandied about as well. It wasn’t long before speculation on the creature’s identity by the locals gave way to discussions on ways to catch it.

It seems at least one person grew weary of waiting around for someone to come up with a plan. Ms. Charlotte Sewell, a well-known sportswoman who had claimed the Valley fishing tournaments women’s division championship in 1936 and 1937 decided to take matters into her own capable hands. She famously proclaimed in the August 12th edition of the Brownsville Daily Herald, in an article entitled “Women May Seek Sea Monster,” that she was willing to join a search party to seek out the mystery creature. She added that if the men of Port Isabel were not up to the challenge, she would put together an all woman team of monster hunters. Nobody seemed to doubt that she meant every word she said.

Ms. Sewell’s comments seemed to achieve the desired effect as within days it was decided that an expedition to seek out the Port Isabel sea monster would become a reality. Scouting vessels were dispatched to patrol the waters in the area where the great beast had been seen. The plan was, once the creature’s general location had been determined, a ship outfitted with harpoons and 500-feet of rope attached to tightly plugged barrels (think the chase scene from the movie Jaws) would hurry to the scene in an effort to end the mystery once and for all. Even the U.S. Coast Guard got involved though, to be honest, it appears they wanted to keep an eye on the monster hunters more than they wanted to help capture the monster itself. The commander of the Coast Guard station on Padre Island, Capt. Pablo Valent, said, “We do not contemplate that the party will run into trouble but it is in line of our duty that we be ready to offer aid should it be needed. Our boats will be within reach from the time the fish is sighted until he is lost or returned to port.”

The flagship of the hunt turned out to be skippered by none other than the Vice-President of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce, a Mr. B.B. Burnell. Burnell’s vessel carried a who’s who of local luminaries including the mayor of Port Isabel, the Fishing Rodeo’s president, the founder of the Fishing Rodeo, a well-known physician, and numerous other well-to-do residents. Predictably, the search party was not successful in their efforts to catch a glimpse of the sea monster. Burnell remained upbeat, however, and was quoted in the August 18th edition of the Brownsville Daily Herald as saying, “We know he exists and we believe he again will put in his appearance here.” He added, “When he does we will be ready to go after him.”

If the sea monster, whatever it was, ever did make another appearance along the south Texas coast it is not recorded. The story of the monster, as such tales often do, faded into history and was forgotten by most. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Port Isabel today who has even heard of the sea monster sightings of 1938.

I visited Padre Island and Port Isabel back in the early 1990’s. I recall walking out on a long pier at sunset with the young lady I was seeing at the time. At the end of the pier sat an old man in a folding chair. He sat motionless and stared out at the open water of the lower Laguna Madre. He had no fishing pole or gear. He merely sat and stared out across the expanse of water. I knew nothing of the Port Isabel sea monster at that time or I might have worked my nerve up to ask him about it. I have since come to wonder if maybe this old man had been around back in 1938, had maybe even seen the creature himself, and was still patiently waiting for the monster to make another appearance.

I suppose, like the identity of the monster itself, I will never know.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Einstein on the Unknown

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

- Albert Einstein

Monday, May 2, 2011

Black Bears Spotted in Upshur, County Texas

I have a friend named Ken Stewart who lives in Upshur County, Texas. Early last year he related a story about a sighting of multiple black bears not too far from his home. Ken knew the alleged witness and said he would seek this person out in an effort to find out more about the sighting at his earliest convenience. Ken wanted to eliminate the possibility that the witness might have actually seen feral hogs in low light conditions prior to my posting anything about the sighting. Life being what it is, it was a while before Ken had a chance to look up the witness. It was worth waiting for; however, as the account leaves little doubt that the witness did indeed see black bears and not hogs. Ken’s write-up on the incident is below:

Word moves quickly in a small town -- even to former residents like myself. I found out about the sighting of four bears through my family. The encounter occurred in early November 2010 at about 2100. The witness' property backs up to the Little Cypress Creek bottomland in eastern Upshur County, located in northeast Texas.

I visited the witness last month and was told the circumstances of the encounter. The witness' home is located in a pasture on a working farm. A short corral fence surrounds the yard. The witness was feeding a large dog in the front yard at night when something unusual happened. The dog heard or smelled something which prompted him to leave his food and investigate the back yard. The witness followed and caught up to the dog, finding him looking through the back fence while wagging his tail. The witness thought this was odd and walked up to the fence to find two adult bears and two cubs standing just ten yards away. The area was well lit by two floodlights. In all, the encounter lasted about five minutes. At one point, the two adult bears stood on their hind legs. The witness described them at both being about five feet tall when standing. Each bear had black hair. The cubs' height at their shoulder was a just short of two feet while on all fours. The witness did not feel threatened by the bears and the bears did not show any aggression -- just curiosity. The bears eventually left, following a pasture road through a distant gate towards the bottomland.

I asked the landowner if there was an explanation of the dog's friendly reaction to the bears. The witness believes that the dog had seen the bears in the past. It is possible that the bears came to the home to harvest apples from a tree in the back yard. I noted that there was a large stack of firewood stacked against the fence that would provide steps for the bears to cross over the fence.

The bottomland behind the home provides a favorable habitat for wildlife. When I first heard of the sighting, I decided to fly over the property and take photos to determine the type of trees present in the bottomland. I found that hardwoods were most prominent in the wooded area between the sighting location and the creek. It should be noted that Little Cypress merges into Big Cypress Creek, which feeds Caddo Lake. To my knowledge, this is the first eyewitness account of female bears in Upshur County in the past several decades. I have known the witness my whole life and believe the account.

Due to the fact that the area where the sighting took place was adequately lit and the close proximity of the witness to the animals, misidentification doesn’t seem possible. It seems that bears have returned to Upshur County. Whether these bears were endangered Louisiana black bears (Ursus americanus luteolus) or Eastern black bears (Ursus armericanus americanus) that have wandered down from Oklahoma or Arkansas remains to be seen. The geographic location of Upshur County in far northeast makes either option plausible.

Ken has received permission to place game cameras on the property. I hope to meet up with him in the next two weeks to do just that. As a bonus there have been numerous reports of large black panthers in the immediate vicinity and a couple of sasquatch sightings to boot. I can’t wait to get those cameras out there.

Things could get fun in a hurry…