The Curious Catamount Transcript
Back to The Curious Catamount episode.
Paige Gibbs: Now, if you could please close your eyes while I count to 10. One, two, three, four…
Ryan Newswanger: Hi, Ryan Newswanger here. I’m one of the producers of Before Your Time.
Paige: All right, you may open your eyes. And welcome to November 24th, 1881.
Ryan: Last fall producer Amanda Kay Gustin and I met Paige Gibbs from the Barnard Historical Society on a dirt road between Barnard and East Barnard, where I live. A bunch of other folks from the Barnard area came as well.
Paige: So let’s start. We’re looking for deer. That’s all we want. We want to take a deer home, not for dinner tonight, but in the near future.
Ryan: Paige led us on an imaginary hunt through some fields off Sayer Road. Many folks say the last catamount in Vermont was shot in these fields.
[sounds of walking]
Paige: Keep stomping. We’re not halfway there!
Ryan: We took turns reading from a script she had handed out, created from an account of that hunt in 1881.
Mary Croft: Taking my shotgun, I started about 7:00 a.m. and had not gone more than 100 rods…
Speaker: Hold on, Jim, there’s a catamount. I saw that the same moment walking slowly up the hill, some 15 rods…
Rod Croft: There is no doubt that the first shot both surprised and hurt him. And he started at Mr. Crawford up the hill, went about three rods and lay down, unable to go further. And there is where he lay as Mr. Crawford fired the second shot.
Ryan: As a bonus, Joe LaDoucer, who raises beef on Bowman Road, brought one of the guns that family lore says was used to kill the panther.
Joe: The first gun was a shotgun and that’s what wounded him. And then they come up with the rifle and that’s what put the round in his eye that finished him off. Oh, yeah. But if you look at the shotgun, man, I don’t know anybody…I wouldn’t want to be crawling through the bushes with that thing. It’s only one shot and it’s a cap and ball. Oh, boy.
Ryan: Joe’s father had gotten the shotgun in a trade with a neighbor many years ago. But while the shotgun was stored in a closet, the Barnard panther itself became famous.
[sounds of walking into the History Museum]
Steve Perkins: We’re looking at a taxidermy specimen of a catamount. It’s the last Catamount that was recorded to be shot in Vermont.
Ryan: This is Steve Perkins, Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society. Here’s Amanda.
Amanda Kay Gustin: So this cat has been in the history museum for quite a while, and it’s always been on some kind of public display, it’s sort of hard to think of the history museum without this animal in it…. And I think it’s safe to say that in all that time it’s been in the museum, it’s been an emotional object for people. It’s made an impression.
Steve: As a kid, I came here in the early 80s with my grandfather, and I remember walking up the steps to the pavilion building and you open the brown doors and you walk into this beautiful kind of marbled entranceway. And the first thing I saw was this this cat. You know, it just framed that whole visit for me. And when people ask, “What’s your earliest memory of a visit to a museum in Vermont?” it’s that catamount.
Ryan: Alexander Crowell, who killed what was known as “The Barnard panther” had the animal taxidermied. He brought it around the state, charging people to see it, before giving it to the Vermont Historical Society.
Amanda: I’ve seen some kids that get a little afraid of it. I’ve seen some kids that have to be dragged screaming away from it because they’re so fascinated by it. But there’s something about the catamount, the magnetism of the catamount, that even persists in this physical object.
Steve: Well, it does. And it’s not something that I think any visitor is expecting to see in Vermont. This animal has been gone from our landscape for so many years, for generations. So it’s not within this realm of understanding that that you’re going to come face to face with a catamount. And so when you walk in and you see it, it’s really striking. But then it also leads to so many questions. Why is this catamount out here? What are we celebrating? Are we celebrating death? Are we celebrating loss or are we are we looking at our history in many different ways? I think there’s so many stories this one object can tell. And ideally, it draws that visitor into exploring this museum and hopefully thinking about some of those questions.
Ryan: This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.
Ryan: It’s been a little over a year since we put out a Before Your Time episode. We’ve decided to make a few small changes, including adding some new producers, who you’ll hear from in upcoming episodes.
Ryan: But for this episode, just Amanda and I will be your hosts.
Amanda: First things first: the animal we’re talking about today, which we’ll call the catamount in this episode, is known by many other names as well. Its scientific name is Puma concolor, and it’s also called the mountain lion, the cougar, the puma, the panther, or the painter. The Abenaki, Vermont’s original inhabitants, call it Bitola.
John Hunt: (Speaking in Abenaki).
John: So I said, hello, hello, my friends, my name is John Hunt, and I’m from the shores of Lake Champlain.
John: I grew up in West Addison and I’m from the dawnland here. We call the dawnland our homeland, N’dakinna, our homeland. I’m of the Moosehead Mountain, which is Mount Mansfield…. I’m a citizen of the Nulhegan band, the Coosuk or the Coosuk Abenaki.
Amanda: The Abenaki people have called this land home for hundreds of years, long before it was named “Vermont” by the new European settlers. And the Abenaki were the first people to have a relationship with the catamount.
John: It’s always sort of been like a mythical creature in a way. You know, people always say, oh, the catamount is gone, it’s extinct. It was hunted out. But then there’s always stories of people saying, well, I saw this track or I think that I saw a catamount up in the mountains or there was a deer pulled up into a tree or something.
Amanda: John shares with us an Abenaki story about the Creator and his helper, Gluskabe, that includes the catamount. In this story, the Creator ponders bringing humans into a world dominated by large animals.
John: And so Gluskabe went around to the different animals to sort of see, you know, what would happen if you came in contact with these humans that they were wanting to create. Just checking with the animals to see how they would react. And some of the animals, they would react fine. Some of them would be scared of the humans. Some of them would just sort of allow the humans to do their thing.
John: But there were some creatures that were big and powerful and territorial and would have tried to destroy the humans, you know, the moose and the bear.
John: And so Gluskabe in his ways with his powers, was able to shrink all the different beings through his powers. And you can still see his mark, they say, in the way that the moose, his horns look like great hands could sort of grasp the horns is like the mark of his hands as he’s sort of shrunk the moose down.
Amanda: The last animal that Gluskabe tried to shrink was Bitolo, the mountain lion.
John: The mountain lion is so aware and such a good hunter that it was very hard and Gluskabe had to move very quietly. And he saw the mountain lion up on the cliff and started moving, sneaking quietly towards the mountain lion. And right before he got there, he stepped on a branch and the branch snapped. And the mountain lion looked and started to run and in the story, Gluskabe, all he could do was just grab the mountain lion’s tail and maybe in that grab was able to put a little bit of power into him, shrink him a little bit, but not much.
John: And so the mountain lion is still, you know, a very dangerous predator to the human. And at the same time, in grabbing his tail, he lengthened the mountain lion’s tail and put a black mark on the end of his tail. And so that’s why the mountain lion has such a long tail. And Bitola means “long tail” or “much tail.”
Amanda: The Abenaki survived in Vermont, despite centuries of persecution and erasure by Europeans, who often viewed them as something dangerous to be removed…much like the catamount.
John: I guess maybe there’s a piece of our kind of spirit connected to the catamount in that sense of [being] unkillable. Or that it could be hidden in the deep woods and be able to come back when the time is right. I feel like there’s that kind of spirit to it.
Amanda: A few hundred years ago, panthers were found in every US state except Alaska and Hawaii, and every province of Canada. They can live anywhere from the southernmost tip of Chile to the arctic circle of North America.
Amanda: Today, the panther’s range is far reduced, but it’s still a common sight in the American west. So why did it disappear from Vermont?
Jan Albers: Well, you know, the European view of landscape was a huge contrast to what had gone before in Vermont. They wanted to do far more intensive agriculture and they believed in settled residence and in land ownership.
Amanda: Jan Albers is a Vermont historian from Weybridge. She has taught at Middlebury College, and wrote a book called Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape.
Jan: Trees were their greatest obstacle, and as you know, the first thing they wanted to do when they got to these lands was to start cutting down the trees, and the rapidity with which they did that is really pretty staggering to think of.
Amanda: The European settlers in Vermont drew a hard line between wilderness and civilization. They also had a clear idea of what defined “civilization.”
Jan: The first settlers, the Abenaki, they were making paths. They were farming along the waterways and things like that.
Amanda: However, the ways the Abenaki people live on and interact with the landscape didn’t register to these newcomers as civilization. The Europeans thought that in order to really live in a place, you had to use it in a particular way.
Jan: And they’re basing it in biblical terms, that Adam and Eve started in a garden, not a wilderness. And they were thrown out into the wilderness. So wilderness, bad garden, good, you know, in this kind of a biblical scheme of reference. And so for them, it was part of a civilization that they were going to and it was part of God’s will that they were going to create a garden that would also benefit themselves.
Amanda: Some animals were fit for this Eden, and some weren’t.
Jan: There were categories that were useful animals like deer that you could kill and eat. And then there were threatening animals. I mean, almost every town history describing the period when the settlers came in was full of stories of families in their log cabins being threatened by bears or by the catamount.
Amanda: By the time Vermont became a state in 1791, the European settlers had changed the state drastically. Naturalist Samuel Williams published a natural history of Vermont around the same time.
Jan: Already he’s talking about the massive environmental changes that have taken place in this part of the world. And it’s kind of staggering because on the one hand, he’s very aware of what happens to a landscape when the trees are cut. He’s very aware that when you cut trees, everything is opened up and it becomes drier. It doesn’t have that moist forest feeling that you have when you’re in the woods.
Jan: The thing that’s quite extraordinary is that he doesn’t say we’re destroying the habitat of the animals. He said the animals are forsaking us. The animals are deserting us. The animals are leaving us. And he’s devastated.
Amanda: By the middle of the 1800s, many of Vermont’s original native animals were gone or almost gone: deer, moose, elk, beavers, turkeys, wolves, and of course, the catamount.
Jan: And in a lot of writing on the period, hunters are lamenting that their favorite animals to hunt are getting very scarce and that they’re feeling sorry for themselves. Not for the animals, you know, we love doing this, it’s so fun. Unfortunately, there are not too many [animals] around anymore.
Amanda: In 1864, George Perkins Marsh of Woodstock published Man and Nature, the first worldwide bestseller about the environment.
Jan: And George Perkins Marsh came along and said, there is nothing, I believe, less than the idea that that mankind is part of nature, mankind is the destroyer of nature and has to learn to do better. We cannot rely on nature to take care of itself. It’s not taking care of itself.
Jan: It was the beginning of scales falling from the eyes of people, a slowly, slowly building movement towards environmental responsibility. And so, our own little state of Vermont furnished, sadly, a life lesson that became part of a lesson for a far, far broader audience.
Amanda: Vermont reforested out of neglect, instead of from planned action. After the Civil War, many Vermonters abandoned their farms for new lands out west. Our state’s forests started to come back—but the forests weren’t exactly the same.
Jan: So the big, magnificent trees of this settlement period, the trees that had been the homeland and the lifeblood of indigenous peoples, were very different trees from the often scrubby ones that had been cut down for repeated clear cuttings and things like that.
Amanda: And the animals that were eventually re-introduced into the revitalized forests were often the ones that fit into the European Garden of Eden ideal, such as deer and turkeys.
Amanda: In time, Vermonters started to develop a more balanced understanding of the landscape – one that has, of course, always been held by the Abenaki people. They started to hope that they might repair some of the damages that two centuries of settlement had done.
Jan: The quote unquote wilderness seems very romantic now that it’s gone. And I think that even with trees coming back, I think we all know that wilderness isn’t back in in any early sense of the term, but that we have a romance about it. And, you know, you can feel it around you on a hiking in the woods, in the mountains. And you get some feeling of it. And I think part of that romance is that we want to think, first of all, that parts of that wilderness can come back. We want to believe that, you know, like Samuel Williams said, they have retreated, but now they’re coming back.
Amanda: But the catamount may be gone forever.
Jan: It’s kind of like the impossible dream. I think what it tells us is really to look at ourselves. And is this kind of a form of guilt? Is this the romantic view, that if we saw a catamount, if catamounts came back, it would absolve us of the guilt of having destroyed them in the first place. So maybe we should instead of looking out there in the woods for catamounts, we need to use a catamount to look in the mirror.
Ryan (to Joe Citro): Do you remember when you first heard about catamounts?
Joe Citro: I suspect it was from my father because he was the supplier of most of the early, weird tales that I’ve that turned into a career.
Ryan: Joe Citro is a Vermont folklorist who has often written about ghosts and other paranormal happenings in New England.
Joe: We lived in Chester, and it was there that Reverend Ballou started collecting catamount stories. In fact, I think he may very well have been the first one who sort of took a semi-scientific look at the possibility that catamounts still lived. He started a club, a panther club in the 1930s, which was, of course, before my time.
Ryan: William J. Ballou was a Congregationalist minister and scoutmaster who founded the “Irrepressible and Uncompromising Order of Pantherites” in 1934.
Joe: He saw what he recognized as a panther print and concluded that they were still around. And as it turned out, so did a lot of other people. And that’s part of its charm. People keep having experiences with panthers. I had one myself.
Ryan: Joe has yet to pen his experience with a catamount into one of his books.
Joe: I’ve taken on a kind of an identity as the collector of Vermont stories and myths and legends. I don’t know what that does to my credibility when I say I saw a catamount. People are probably going to be expecting me to say I saw a ghost or I saw a UFO or I saw Champ.
Ryan: Champ is the lake monster reputed to live in Lake Champlain. Joe Citro saw his catamount when coming home from a book signing along Interstate 89.
Joe: We saw something crossing the road in front of us, it wasn’t dark out or anything like that, so our vision was pretty good. But both of us saw it at the same time. And at first, you know, you can’t really tell what you’re seeing because it’s an unfamiliar thing. And you’ve got this set of index cards in your head that you kind of flip through as you try to identify this thing: pony, deer, big dog.
Joe: And at some point, there was no question that what we were seeing was a big cat with a long tail stretched out behind. It never changed its pace as it was crossing the interstate, it just kind of ambled and it got to the side of the road, looked back at us. And then as if it were on springs, it sort of leapt over the guardrail and into the brush. Just nothing it could have been other than a catamount.
Ryan: Joe has toyed with the idea of starting a Facebook page with the same title as Reverend Ballou’s Pantherite order, where others can share their catamount sighting stories.
Joe: You know, if it were in fact extinct and people weren’t seeing them, I wouldn’t give it much thought. Or if it were proved that they are out there like bears and coydogs and things like that, I probably wouldn’t give it much thought, I’d just accept that they are there. But it’s this element of mystery about the catamount that keeps our curiosity engaged and keeps the conversation going.
Joe: Catamount stories are sort of like ghost stories. You know, we sort of think they’re out there. They might be out there. If we reject them emphatically, the next thing that will happen is one will appear.
Joe: They inspire thought and conversation and curiosity in people. Same reason, I’m quite fascinated in the possibility that there’s a critter of some sort in Lake Champlain. I mean, on one level, it’s immaterial whether it actually exists or not. What’s important is the thought and speculation and curiosity that it inspires.
Amanda: Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Kay Gustin and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Hannah Kirkpatrick.
Ryan: Thanks to our guests: John Hunt, Jan Albers, Jeff Schulman, and Joe Citro.
Amanda: Visit our website, Before Your Time dot org, to find photos related to this episode. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about the podcast. Thanks for listening!