The last big cat

The photograph was nearly three feet wide and two feet tall.

In the center was a fuzzy long-tailed animal. It was running away through area of a tall grass and scattered trees that led to a heavier woods.

“Does that look feline?”

That was Gene Letourneau, the dean of Maine’s outdoor writers, friend of govenors, businessmen and sportsmen everywhere. When he asked me that question, about 1989, he had been at the Waterville Sentinel for more than 60 years. He had done nearly every job at that newspaper owned by his friend Guy Gannett, and with Clayton LaVerdiere, who flew B-25s in World War II, formed as good a journalism faculty as anyone could ask for.

Letourneau and Bud Levitt of the Bangor Daily News were the best outdoor writers in captivity. They appeared everywhere together spinning  tales of fishing, hunting and life. Levitt was a great fly fishing  pal of Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox outfielder.

So when Gene Letourneau asked your opinion on a topic, you responded.
The  photo in question has been sent in by a reader from southern Maine. It was taken with a small 35mm camera from a great distance and Gene had the Sentinel’s photographers blow it up several times so he could see what was in the center.

Whatever the animal, it had a clearly defined tail, maybe half as half as long as its body, and a small rounded head with what appeared to be small ears. But it was many yards away and being displayed in a greatly over-blown photo.

Still it was not a dog, which is what I told Gene.

“Didn’t think so,” he said. “The woman who sent in the photo thinks it was a mountain lion.”

I asked him what were the chances of that.

They’re supposed to be extinct, he said.

Still, he said, his readers had been calling and writing him with suspected sightings of the big cats for years and he had gone out many times to examine the sites looking for scat, fur, bones, nesting — any sign that the mountain lions still roamed the Maine mountains and woods.

I suspect that Gene knew it was not a mountian lion,  but the hunter and reporter in him had to take a look. He never lost that curiosity or desire to probe a question. The instinct for reporting and hunting are remarkably the same.

If he were alive today, Gene would not have been surprised the other day when the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Eastern Mountain Lion has been extinct since the 1930s, I have a feeling he saw the last one.

Was that photo part of Gene’s last big quest? No, it was part of who he was as a person, reporter, and writer. The man who could talk coldly about killing animals also wrote a series of the most tender and revealing books about his bird-hunting dogs.

What would surprise him is the state of the newspaper business. He would know how to fix it,  but today’s management would not listen. They are too wrapped up in trying to find the next big scheme instead of going back to some basic business tenets that served them well for decades.

As Gene Letourneau would say of a lazy birder: “That dog won’t hunt.”

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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