The Fish Story

When Manahawkin Puma Roamed Freely, Circa 1980; Cryogenically Preserved Germs Might Be Emerging

By JAY MANN | Feb 14, 2018

I TAWT I TAW A PUDDY TAT!: It was a mind-blowing night drive along Hilliard Boulevard in Manahawkin. Let’s see, it was 1980, give or take a couple/few years. It began no differently than a thousand or so Hilliard cruises I had taken in the past. But this darkness drive would be like no other, forever tattooing itself on the raw skin of my memory banks. It was the one and only time I saw the Great and Mysterious Puma of Manahawkin and Surrounding Vicinity.

I’m serious as a blown transmission here. I clearly saw a bounding cougar of the highest order. By the by, I’m a nondrinker.

In just a few leaping seconds of WTF viewing, I joined an elite handful of people, including the current Stafford Township mayor, who observed a road-crossing by the massive cat, aka The Enigmatic and Ghostly Stafford Mountain Lion-like Thing. Hey, I like making up titles, a’ight?*

As to the legend behind the mega-cat … well, there actually is none. The thing just showed up one day, bounded about a bit, then moved on to become the Great and Mysterious Puma of Places Other Than Manahawkin and Surrounding Vicinity.

Let’s talk size, because all of us who saw the Prowling Panther of After-Dark Hilliard Boulevard managed a decent – and identical – read on its length. By way of comparison, I have seen bobcats, mainly on trail-cams – and once as a roadkill brought to me for skinning (gospel truth). Anyway, no fewer than four full-bodied bobcats, with a house cat thrown in for good measure, could have comfortably ridden on its back – after perfecting a choreographed method to jump aboard the cougar, with the final bobcat dramatically reaching back to haul up the house cat. Hey, I was never allowed to go to the circus as a kid, so I imagined a lot.

Color-wise, the big cat was pretty much the very definition of khaki; not so much a military khaki but a better-grade L.L. Bean khaki. Toward the underbelly, it was white, though not a Snow White white but more like a Sherwin Williams “Cougar Belly” off-white. Hey, I’m trying to paint you an accurate picture, a’ight?

If we had dashcams back then, you’d be the first to agree it was a cougar … plain and simple. No other feline could have cleared that very wide boulevard in maybe four or five leaps. No, it didn’t have bobcats on its back! That was a purely hypothetical reference. Gish.

As to how a big cat commenced to cruising Manahawkin, I prefer to run with an all-natural approach, having since read accounts of this indigenous New England-based big cat species coming as far south as New York state, a mere stone’s throw away as the cougar flies.

However, there were also those witnesses who ran with it being an escaped zoo animal. There was even a once-heard tale of it being freed from a circus – which is fully understandable. The odds of a lion-tamer successfully jabbing at a cougar with a little chair? Let’s just say that no circus can afford a new, unchewed lion-tamer every couple weeks or so.

(*) If you’re not dope enough to understand a’ight, it’s a term we rappers and skater boys use in place of “all right.” To the uncool, it can be a bit tough to properly pronounce since it’s one of those very rare 1.5-syllable words. Practice it … and prepare to be, like, an ultra-cool parent. “You will be home by midnight or it’s your ass … a’ight?” Your kids might be mortified when you drop an a’ight in front of their friends, but those same friends will quietly think “That is the coolest parent ever.”

COUGAR DEAD END: Bringing puma-ish things up to date – and the spark for my current puma recollecting – is a recent announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declaring the Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) to be extinct. As such, it has been unceremoniously removed from the endangered species list. If you think it’s bad being on the endangered list, try out the extinct list.

In a Scientific American article by John R. Platt titled “Ghost Cat Gone: Eastern Cougar Officially Declared Extinct,” the journey to extinction has apparently been no walk in the park.

“This (extinction) news, sad though it is, has been a long time coming. The big cats, once native to New England, were last verifiably observed back in 1938. The Service first concluded that the species was extinct back in 2011, and then proposed removing its protected status in 2015. This latest step, taken after extensive scientific review and public comment, completes the Eastern cougar’s long journey into the night,” wrote Platt.

It was Platt’s mentioning of a wildly wide-ranging cougar that got my Jersey puma recalls reflowing.

“Cougars from the West are actually expanding their range and repopulating areas where they had once been exterminated. Most of those settle in the Midwest, but one famous mountain lion trekked all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Connecticut a few years ago – a journey of about 2,000 miles.”

Aha! Living proof that a crazily cruising cougar, maybe one wanting to see the ocean, might have once negotiated the wilds of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, eventually crossing a Delaware River toll bridge, by sneaking under a dozing toll-taker’s window – spotted only by a repeat drunk in the backseat of a nearby parked police cruiser.

Drunk: “Holy crap! Look at the size of that frickin’ cat!”

Cop: “Shut up, Maurice, and let me read my paper.”

Drunk: “I’m never getting out of this car.”

Once across the toll bridge, the now-Jersey cougar would patiently wait in the long grass before stealthily bolting across the I-95 corridor, soon luxuriating in a cruise through the Pinelands outback, before zipping across the Parkway and smack dab into Manahawkin – and in front of my vehicle. How can you not see how feasible that is?

Since those good old days of cougar bound-abouts, the Great and Mysterious Puma of Manahawkin and Surrounding Vicinity has never been seen again. However, the recent announcement of the species’ Eastern extinction is not sitting well with many a New Jerseyan. In fact, the declaration has caused a bit of an uproar, assuming that’s an acceptable pun for whatever noises pumas make. There are social media types who swear up and down that they’ve seen neighborhood pumas within the last few years. I was even emailed a stunning trail-cam night video of what surely appears to be a cougar … that, or a huge, furry hummingbird. The focus is a tad off.

I’m now on a media mission to prove an Eastern cougar or two still ghosts about. I even dream of retiring a rich man after photographing a three-way standoff among a Jersey devil, a Pinelands sasquatch and a toll-plaza cougar. No, there won’t be a UFO circling overhead! Stay serious.

CATCHING A CAVEMAN COLD: Are we melting into extinction? … And it seemed like such a nice day, right?

Doomsdayish scientific types are holding their breaths over an emerging possibility that a microbial trickledown effect of climate change may rear up and bite humanity.  The prospect of potentially race-destroying diseases frozen in time is sending shivers down the backs of paleopathologists, studiers of diseases from the past.

With eons-old glaciers and faltering layers of permafrost thawing at an unheard-of rate, the decidedly spooky question is surfacing as to what microbes will be freed from a deep-freeze sleep. And here I’ve spent my entire life fearing the terrifying thaw-out of “The Thing” (1951, RKO Pictures), a mainstay monster of Saturday science-fiction double features.

The inner cores of our planet’s hard-frozen zones easily date back to the last Ice Age – and way earlier, to times when absurdly rugged homo sapiens duked it out with the likes of wooly mammoths – as both sidestepped saber-toothed tigers. Back when, every living thing was pretty much a bad-ass, meaning it was essential for all lifeforms to develop rock-hard immune systems.

Logic alone dictates that ancient microbes, seeking a survival niche, also had to toughen up. Now the quarantine-worthy question: What might such beefy, cryogenically preserved microorganisms, if suddenly freed from the grip of glaciers and permafrost, reek upon today’s man? Those melting-ice scientists sense that 21st-century sorts could be dead ducks if put upon by what amounts to woolly mammoth-grade germs.

To get a feel for their pandemic fears, simply look back a mere few hundred years, to European explorers – who wiped out entire cultures with just their breath, by spewing forth alien European microbes. An ugly example was Hispaniola, where the Amerindian Taíno people numbered in the millions – until Columbus and the boys sailed into town. Only 50 years after first contact, the once remarkably healthy and long-lived Taíno people, lacking immunity to arriving Old World pathogens, were diseased down to fewer than 1,000 pure-bred hangers-on. Ironically, those Taíno who interbed with explorers – swapping antibodies and acquired immunities – survive to this day.

In a BBC article by Jasmin Fox-Skelly titled “Long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries, are reviving as Earth’s climate warms,” the survival capacity of hard-frozen microbes is exposed.

“(NASA) scientists managed to revive an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice, beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica. In the same study, bacteria were also revived from ice that was over 100,000 years old,” writes Fox-Skelly.

Evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France told the BBC, “Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark.

“Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”

But it isn’t just paleo-germs to worry about amid the melting ice. In August 2016, an outbreak of anthrax struck an isolated group of people in a far corner of Siberia. The disease killed a 12-year-old boy and sickened dozens of others. The cause, according to a CNN headline: “Thawed reindeer carcass blamed in anthrax outbreak.”

Reindeer that died from an anthrax outbreak over 70 years ago were iced under until a recent warm snap exposed them. Next, things got a bit cannibalistically weird.

“Scientists speculated that the deer, weakened from the heat, ate the thawed remains of an infected reindeer carcass that had been frozen for many years. From there, the infection was passed to nomad herders,” reported CNN.

Obviously, this segment reeks of my ongoing anti-planetary warming sentiment. But you have to admit it’s another dang decent reason to finally put a plug in worldwide atmospheric abuse.

If you think that pathogens exposed in places like Antarctica can’t affect us, a recent issue of Earthweek: Diary of a Changing World added fuel to the pathogen fire by reporting, “Scientists have for the first time determined that astounding numbers of viruses are being swept up from the Earth’s surface and blown around the world in the planet’s atmospheric circulation. …

“The global winds are spreading them, as well as bacteria, for thousands of miles, possibly from one continent to another.”

What a revolting time for me to develop this cough.

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