Catamounts still roam the mountains

Paws rushes the field.

Paws rushes the field.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent declaration that the eastern cougar is extinct spawned a column by naturalist Don Hendershot in the Smoky Mountain News titled “Only Catamounts left in WNC are at WCU.” But exactly what kind of cat WCU had in mind when adopting the “Catamount” as the mascot – whether cougar, mountain lion, bobcat, puma, panther or lynx – has been debated for as long as the Catamount has been the mascot, said Doug Reed, WCU’s retired public information director, in a 1981 Western Horizon article called “The Changing Cat.”

Hendershot said “cougars/catamounts” are in the genus Puma and once roamed the mountains of Western North Carolina, with the last documented in the  Smokies in 1920. “Even before white settlers, these great cats were likely rare because of range requirements,” said Hendershot. “Western cougars are moving eastward, but I believe there are several obstacles to catamounts re-establishing, without assistance, viable eastern populations. ”

The 2011 Random House Dictionary defines “catamount” more broadly, as “a wild animal of the cat family, especially the cougar or the lynx.” At the University of Vermont – the only other four-year university to have a Catamount as its mascot – the creature takes on characteristics more representative of a mountain lion, said Sean O’Connell, head of the WCU biology department. “In Vermont, where I lived for a few years, catamounts meant only mountain lions and not bobcats or other wild cats,” said O’Connell.

The adoption of the Catamount as the Western Carolina mascot in 1932 took place as C.C. Poindexter, football coach and organizer of WCU’s first department of athletics, took an interest in finding a new name for the Western Carolina team dubbed the The Teachers (and nicknamed The Yodelers, according to some reports). Poindexter expressed a preference for the Catamounts, and an on-campus contest in 1932 to pick a new moniker came down to the Mountain Boomers, which were small, difficult-to-catch ground squirrels that scampered around the wooded Cullowhee campus, and the Catamounts.

The Catamount mascot depicted in a 1930s rendering did not have features of a specific type of living breed of catamount, but reports say that about that time a wildcat about 18 inches tall – a bobcat-sized cat – was caught in the hills around Cullowhee. Hendershot said bobcats, which are solitary and shy, are smaller than cougars and typically have tan to grayish coats with black spots or smudges, short tails with black tips and weigh, on average, 20 to 30 pounds.  “The record argues for the bobcat, which naturalists say is one of the toughest of all animals, frequently besting even a wolverine,” said Reed in the Western Horizon article.

For Steve White, retired director of sports information at WCU, the bobcat is what he has always associated with the Catamount. “We actually have one up here on our hill at Buzzards Roost that I see sporadically,” said White, who described it as about the size of a medium- to large-sized dog – much larger than a conventional cat. “You’ll be coming up at night, and they will run across the road. One time I was out walking on the road between the Printshop and Norton Road and saw it running through the woods.”

To him, the Catamount has a strong connection to what it means to be part of WCU. “Look at the uniqueness,” said White. “They are a relatively unique breed of cats, and we are one of only two four-year institutions in the country to have the Catamount as a mascot. I’ve heard coaches talk about its spirit and fierceness, as being the ‘undercat’ – small in relationship to panthers and cougars and mountain lions, but with the spirit and fierceness to fend for itself and survive. Coaches have tried to instill that even if you have the disadvantage, that even if there are not as many of you, that you have to fight like a Catamount.”

Of course, the depictions of the Catamount over the years have ranged from fierce to friendly – so friendly that Chancellor John W. Bardo described one version as “huggy cat.” When a new mascot and logo for WCU athletics was adopted in 2008 on the 75th anniversary of becoming the Catamounts, Bardo said part of the goal was to be more in keeping with the original thinking behind the selection of the name “Catamount.”  “We believe our new look better reflects the strength and agility of the native mountain cats of Western North Carolina,” said Bardo.

At the least, watching the evolution of the mascot over the years has been interesting, White said. “Sometimes it was a cat with a bob tail, sometimes it was more cat-ish looking and more human-looking,” said White. “What I know for sure is that the Catamount is still alive and well here in Western North Carolina.”