Im-paws-ible? Vet sees 'cougar' on Parkway

When Donny Peppard went biking along the Blue Ridge Parkway last month, he saw more than beautiful views: "I saw something sleek with a long tail, running away," he says.

His verdict? A cougar, also known as a mountain lion.

"I don't know what else it could have been," he adds. "It was freaky."

Unlike bobcats, which weigh between 20 and 45 pounds and naturally occur throughout Virginia, cougars– which can be up to nine feet long and weigh nearly 200 pounds– shouldn't be anywhere around these parts.

According to John Rohm, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the closest natural population is in Florida. And while Rohm says reports of cougar sightings in and around central Virginia aren't uncommon, there has never been a confirmed sighting– one with documented evidence, either photographic or physical.

Many times, Rohm believes, people mistake a bobcat or some other wild animal for a cougar.

Peppard, however, says he didn't make such an error. A veterinarian, he once treated a captive cougar and is familiar with the big cats' physiology. He's also seen cougars when he's biked out west, where they have been known to attack people– sometimes fatally.

Peppard's not the only who thinks he's spotted a cougar on the Blue Ridge.

"I've seen them eight or nine times," says Paul Buschi, an avid biker who works at Performance Bike Shop. When living in Crozet in 2003, Buschi says, he frequently rode along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The first time he saw a cougar, "I thought it was a highway marker," he recalls. "It was staring right at me; then all of a sudden it moved."

Another time, Buschi had to stop his bike in the middle of the road to wait for the cat to climb the bank. "It was about 25 yards away," he says. Fortunately, the animal "never was aggressive."

Like Peppard, Buschi had seen many cougars during bicycle rides out west, and he's positive the animal he saw wasn't a bobcat.

"This was a long-tailed cat, bigger than a chocolate lab," he says.

Rohm suggests one other possibility: that both Peppard and Buschi did, in fact, see a cougar. But if so, he believes, it's one of a kind, and it didn't get there on its own.

"It's more likely a captive cat that's escaped or been released," he says. "I don't think people need to be concerned about cougars in Virginia."

Blue Ridge cats? Can there be cougars in them thar hills?