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After 10 Years, Scientists Searching for Nova Scotia Cougars Call It Quits

Cougar sightings are regularly reported in the province.

For a decade, scientists have been trying to solve an enduring mystery: are there really wild cougars living in Nova Scotia?

Now, after ten long years—and still no evidence that the legends are true—they're finally ready to call it quits. "I think it's time," said Chris McCarthy, resource conservation manager at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, the 400-square-kilometer area where the project ran. "We gave it a good effort," he said.

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The news that there are almost certainly no wild cougars in Nova Scotia might come as a shock to people who grew up there, where cougar sightings still pop up and make the local news. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, there's anecdotal evidence that the big cats prowl there today, but no hard proof.

According to McCarthy, the search for cougars involved a series of lures—what he described as "50-ml Nalgene bottles" containing cougar urine—placed strategically around the park, with some Velcro or barbed wire nearby. If a cougar approached to check out the scent, the idea was that some of their hair would get caught, and be sent off for DNA analysis.

The researchers did retrieve some hair that they sent off for tests, but none came back positive for cougar. (There were conflicting results, McCarthy acknowledged, but after following up with further testing, samples were negative.)

So, how to explain all these reports of cougars? "Lots of things can be mistaken for a cougar," he said. Some could have been "a Great Dane on the loose," or a bobcat or lynx, which are very occasionally seen in the province. He mentioned a photo of a cat next to a bush that looked cougar-like. "People thought it was a cougar, but no, it was a housecat." Maybe some of these sightings have even been cougars raised in captivity that managed to escape, he suggested, or a rare animal that's travelled far from its home range.

Still, the lack of any solid proof—a confirmed sighting on a trail camera, a dead cougar by the side of the road, a speck of DNA—suggests that Nova Scotians are seeing cougars where there are none to be seen. The eastern cougar, a subspecies believed to have once ranged through eastern Canada, is probably truly gone.

McCarthy is ready to move on. "It's time to close her down," he said. "I'm not saying they're not out there. I'm just saying—I haven't seen anything to convince me that they are."

Have you seen a wild cougar in Nova Scotia? Contact the writer: kate.lunau@vice.com