Tennessee TV station falls victim to cougar hoax

There’s nothing more embarrassing in journalism than being spectacularly wrong. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there, done that…maybe should’ve had a t-shirt made.

A Chattanooga TV station is likely figuring that out today, after apparently falling victim to a hoax about a cougar being spotted in Tennessee.

The station, WDEF Channel 12 in Chattanooga, posted a story Wednesday, claiming that a cougar had been spotted in the Falling Water area, which is just off U.S. Hwy. 27 north of the city, near Signal Mountain. The TV station warned: “If you live in the Falling Water area, be on the lookout for a mountain lion! He or she was spotted Tuesday night off of Roberts Mills Road.”

The article went on to claim that the cougar was captured on someone’s trail camera.

Any time I see a trail cam photo of a cougar that claims to have been taken in Tennessee, I’m immediately suspicious. I’m suspicious because these photos pop up on social media — Facebook especially — all the time … and because cougars are incredibly rare in Tennessee.

Lots of folks claim they see cougars, but what they mistake as a cougar is often a bobcat, a large house cat, or even a dog. Of the tens of thousands of trail cameras that are active in Tennessee’s forests at any given time, none ever capture photos of cougars — at least not photos that can be verified — except for a few in west Tennessee in 2015 and 2016. A few that have been investigated by the TN Wildlife Resources Agency have been determined to be hoaxes.

(There were several confirmed cougar sightings in West Tennessee in 2015 and 2016. It was likely a single transient male, as there is not a breeding population of cougars in the Volunteer State.)

So when I saw the news story from the Chattanooga TV station, I was immediately suspicious. And it only took a bit of searching to find this: The exact same image, posted by the Diluth News Tribune in Minnesotain 2012 … more than eight years ago.

As it turns out, that photo from near Chattanooga is actually a decade-old photo taken in western Minnesota. (Unlike in Tennessee, cougar sightings have been on the increase in Minnesota and Wisconsin, though the DNRs in those states do not believe they have breeding populations of the big cats, either.)

There’s an old piece of advice in the news business: “If your mother tells you something…verify it!” In other words, believe nothing you hear, unless you’ve double-sourced it. That’s especially true when someone claims to have photographed a cougar in Tennessee, since cougars and 8-ft. diamondback rattlesnakes are Tennesseans’ favorite hoaxes. (Note: There are no diamondback rattlers in Tennessee, either.)

It’s easy to forget that advice. Trust me. It hasn’t been terribly long ago that my newspaper erroneously reported that one of the most beloved ministers in our community’s history had died. He hadn’t, fortunately, and he’s still alive and well today. It was a horrifically embarrassing mistake (thankfully, he was graceful about the accident) that proves just how easy it is to make mistakes if you are too quick on the trigger and don’t appropriately vet your stories. If anyone in this business claims to be immune to embarrassing mistakes, it’s likely only a matter of time before karma pays them a visit.

I’ve had the cougar hoax tried on me before. About 15 years ago, someone walked into my office with photos of a “cougar” that was supposedly spotted in the edge of a residential yard off Coopertown Road in West Oneida. The picture was fairly convincing. But a cougar in Tennessee? Not likely. I sent a copy of the photo to some wildlife biologists, who opined that the photo was likely a house cat. Some time later, I was told that the photographer knew it was a house cat, but was trying to see if he could get it published in the newspaper as a cougar.

We may never know whether WDEF was approached by the supposed photographer of the “Signal Mountain cougar” or whether they were trying to turn a viral Facebook post into a news story. As a general rule, I’d be suspicious of any news story that includes the use of emojis. Not that I don’t use emojis; I love emojis. I use them more than most middle-aged men. But I would never use them in a news story because they come across as unprofessional and tacky.

As of 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the WDEF story was still online. Hopefully, the TV station will not only remove the story but issue a retraction. As any wildlife officer will tell you, it’s hard enough to make the public believe that, no, cougars aren’t in Tennessee (thanks in large part to all the viral Facebook posts that take photos from places like western Minnesota and falsely present them as being from somewhere in Tennessee) without legitimate media outlets adding to the misinformation.

So, the lesson here is to never, ever believe a Facebook photo you see that claims to be of a cougar in Tennessee. As TWRA says, “It boggles the mind the number of cougar hoaxes that are out there. Many times a photo of a cougar from another state is touted as being from Tennessee. Other times, an image of a cougar has been ‘photoshopped’ on to a photo of Tennessee landscape.” The Chattanooga cougar is a case of the former. A couple of years ago, we investigated a viral Facebook post that claimed to be photo evidence of a cougar in Campbell County. It, too, turned out to be a photo taken in another state. If there’s a photo floating around on social media that claims to be of a cougar in Tennessee, there’s always a slight chance it could be legitimate. But there’s a much higher probability that it’s a hoax.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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