City Paper: You started out doing radio reporting for WFBR.
John Lutz: That was where I first got involved with Mr. Cougar. Back in 1965 I went to work for WFBR, weekend news writing. Louis Corbin was the news director, and he said, “How’d you like to go find out what’s killing animals up along the Gunpowder River.” I said, “I’d love to.” And that’s what I did.
CP: Something was mauling animals along the Gunpowder?
JL: Something was mauling horses, cattle, pigs, goats, anything, up along the upper reaches of the Gunpowder. And I went up there and started talking to farmers, and they said they thought they saw a big cat. And in ’65, there was supposed to be no cougars anywhere on the East Coast. I went back to Lou and I said, “I gotta find more out about this,” and I just fell in the love with the subject. From that point on, people started calling us, calling the state police [about puma sightings]. The police became involved at that time. And I was investigating all types of unexplained phenomenon with the cooperation of the Maryland State Police for several years. This was from the late ’60s all the way up to the end of the 1980s.
CP: Before the Eastern Puma Research Network, which was formed in 1983, you had Odyssey Research.
JL: We investigated every type of strange phenomenon that there was. I was the only independent researcher in the United States that had a statewide police agency calling me, saying, “Well, we got a mysterious animal on the Beltway,” or, “There’s a mysterious light up on Route 24 outside of Rocks State Park.”
That was a real weird situation. A couple of citizens saw this light, and they went through it, maybe a 100-foot diameter circle of light. It would bathe you, and you’d have shadows, but there was no sound, and when you walked out of the circle of light, it was pitch dark, and you’d look up and you didn’t see anything.
And we investigated bigfoot up on the Patapsco River in Sykesville in 1972. We had a giant search party to see what we could find. We found some tracks up there and made plaster casts of them.
CP: What were the tracks of?
JL: Don’t know. It was a big animal. Three toes, a foot about 14 1/2 inches long. It could have been a sasquatch or bigfoot that had been washed down the North Branch of the Patapsco River during Tropical Storm Agnes in ’72. That had happened in June, and the sightings occurred in July and August.
CP: You mean literally the sasquatch got caught up in the floodwaters and was carried downstream?
JL: That’s right. And then he was hanging in the area of Sykesville and Woodbine and another town off of Route 97. The police chief in Sykesville, he saw it one night as it crossed the road, described it as about 7 to eight feet tall, hairy all over. It went almost up to Mount Airy. There was a police officer there that saw it. We believed them because there were tracks and there were too many witnesses.
That was when we had Odyssey—we took care of any strange animal, any phenomenon. We did spontaneous combustion. We did anything that came along that was unusual that was not a law-enforcement problem. We had a case down on Haven Street between Eastern Avenue and O’Donnell Street one time that was an ice fall of fish—little fish, minnows. It was a clear blue sky, and then all of the sudden fish were falling down, frozen. They said it was apparently some form of a weather phenomenon where they had been picked up over the ocean and somehow swept inland, and the ice pellets came down. There must have been about a million fish on Haven Street. That was back in the ’60s.
CP: You saw these fish?
JL: We went down and saw the fish.
CP: So how did you come to focus on cougars?
JL: Well, Odyssey—we had a joint thing between Odyssey and Eastern Puma Research Network. Cougars were increasing in numbers back in the ’60s—that was the Dark Ages of cougar studies. People were saying, yeah, “Well, if you believe in cougars, you know, you’re crazy,” and everything else. They were saying there’s no such things as cougars or panthers. But there are cluster reports of cougar sightings in different areas, and that’s what we do, we gather cluster reports.
CP: How come no one seems to find cougar carcasses in the Eastern United States to examine for DNA testing, to prove this once and for all?
JL: There have been cougar carcasses found. In Kentucky in 1997, about a 3-month-old cub was hit crossing the road, and the guy who hit it said he swerved to miss another cub and a larger cat. And that cub, under DNA [testing], was found to have two different types of parents. One was South American origin, one was North American origin. Maybe it walked up here from South American. Who knows? But scientists said, well, it was an escaped/released pet. I disagree with that.
CP: Couldn’t its parents be an escaped/released South American pet that hooked up with a North American cougar in the wild?
JL: That’s one scenario. We’ve had cougars killed in Maryland, Garrett County, one killed up in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
CP: What happened to those bodies?
JL: They disappeared. They just mysteriously disappeared.
CP: No one has any sense of the chain of custody after they were killed?
JL: Well, the Department of Natural Resources had the one in Garrett County, but they said they took it to a wildlife management station, and whatever happened to it from there, they don’t know. This was 25, 30 years ago. Same situation in Pennsylvania, that one’s lost. They said they didn’t think they needed it anymore.
CP: Even though this is one of those questions that’s been nettling wildlife people . . .
JL: Oh yeah. No game department will ever come out and say, “Oh yes, we have wild cougars in this area.” Nobody will ever come out and say that. To the extent they ever acknowledge any cougars, they’ll say they’re escaped/released pets. Well, the Eastern Puma Research Network has had 7,500 reports of cougar sightings since 1983. And there’s not that many people that own pet cougars.
CP: Just reading through the coverage of this issue, it seems like officialdom has sometimes been on the verge of actually acknowledging the existence of native, East Coast cougars.
JL: They always back down. If they find the evidence, and went out and said, “Yes, I found it,” the cougar being an endangered animal, all that area would have been off-limits to logging because of environmental laws.
CP: Well, doesn’t this get to the motivation for rejecting the notion that cougars are here at all?
JL: That’s one of the reasons. Tourism’s another—people would stop coming to the parks and forests because they’re afraid of cougars.
CP: What’s different about cougars vs. looking for sasquatch, UFOs, mysterious lights?
JL: Well, sasquatch, mysterious lights, UFOs, they don’t leave hardly any evidence behind. UFOs very few times leave evidence. Sasquatch, many people feel that’s some form of a paranormal situation.
CP: It’s a matter of the viewer’s perception.
JL: It’s a matter of perception. And it’s some form of paranormal where animals can walk in and out of the door of time. That was the perception on bigfoot, though I believe bigfoot is a flesh-and-blood animal.
CP: Where’s the best place nearby to go looking for cougars.
JL: Pretty Boy Reservoir, that’s the closest place to Baltimore where you’ve got a chance of seeing a cougar or tracks.
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