It sounded too good to be true. So, of course, it was.
A state wildlife enforcement officer I know told me about a photograph a friend had e-mailed him showing an elk hunter posing in front of the 6x6 bull he had apparently just taken ... “with a cougar, unbeknownst to the hunter, standing in the darkness just a few feet” behind him.
The story in the e-mail was that the guy had used his camera timer to take the photo and hadn't looked at the image until he got home — when, so the story went, he saw the cougar for the first time.
I went online, typed in a few key words and found the photo — on a bunch of sites, and with a bunch of different stories. It was allegedly taken by a Colorado hunter in New Mexico, by some guy in Texas, and a whole bunch of times by somebody in North Dakota.
In one of them, the guy in the photo was named “Sven Ghoulie,” which sounded so ridiculous I looked it up. What I found was your basic dead giveaway to the gag: Turns out “Svengoolie” was the handle of a thoroughly campy host of a Chicago-based horror TV show who wore a wig, face makeup and a top hat.
Well, as bogus as it was, this cougar-lurking-behind-the-hunter photograph went all over the world, on the Websites and blogs of numerous hunting magazines and newspapers.
Naturally, it also prompted e-mails from hunters to state game departments wanting to know if the photo had, indeed, been taken in their state.
Stephanie Tucker, a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist, debunked the myth after receiving eight or 10 of those e-mails.
“I actually was not the one who originally found (the proof),” Tucker said. “An avid mountain lion hunter in our state, his son actually found it online. We had all suspected it was Photoshopped, and this gentleman's son went online to Google Images, and there it was.”
It was the same photograph of the cougar — pre-Photoshopping — that had been taken two and a half years ago by a retired wildlife biologist in California, Chris Wemmer, and posted on his blog (cameratrapcodger.blogspot.com).
Tucker then sent an e-mail to curious hunters and others in her department, explaining the hoax and including a link to Wemmer's blog.
Each recipient must have sent it to everyone he knew, because the hit-counter on Wemmer's site started going crazy.
“I noticed all of a sudden I was getting a lot of hits — more than 1,000 a day,” said Wemmer, whose site typically gets about a quarter of that. “I wondered why it was making these jumps.”
While looking at the source of the hits, he found numerous online hunting forums and other sites — including one in The Netherlands, written entirely in Dutch — showing “this picture of the guy with the elk and this mountain lion in the background. I thought it looked a little bit fakey, but I didn't recognize my own picture.”
Wemmer estimated that he has about 50 photographs of cougars, all taken on a motion-sensor “photo-trap” device he sets up in the rugged Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California, where he lives. The one that ended up in the hoax photo was taken barely 100 yards from his home.
Eventually Wemmer found a reference to the hoax and the link to his own site, went back into his own archives and found his original 2008 photo. His blog is still getting several hundred hits a day even after the hoax has been reported in several places.
One online forum actually posted the link to Wemmer's original photo, and yet another poster argued later on the same thread that the hoax photo just had to be real, because “you just can't Photoshop this well.”
Of course you can. Somebody did.
And while Wemmer's happy for the increased hits on his blog site, he's disappointed it's for all the wrong reasons.
“It just shows you that that kind of fakery captures the imagination of the people who read these hook-and-bullet forums,” said Wemmer, who has since posted the hoax photo on his own site.
“There are some people who just want to believe it's real, even when they see it's a Photoshopped picture. They still don't want to accept it — It could have happened, man — and it's an interesting phenomenon how that stuff catches on.
“This is like bait. It's like using Velveeta cheese for catfish: You just have to wait for the big sucker to come along.”
Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689 or firstname.lastname@example.org