Catamount on the loose: A fierce new statue roars

Photo courtesy of @western_carolina on Instagram


The catamount statue located at the roundabout at the entrance to campus has been removed to make way for a new statue that boasts a fresh design and massive size difference from the original.  The new statue, designed by Jon Hair, will have a new fierce pose and design voted on by a panel of staff, alumni, students and WCU’s Public Art Committee.  

When talking about the old catamount statue let’s be clear, it is not being replaced, only moved.  

Dr. Melissa Wargo, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office described the process of finding the new member of the cat family in depth. Wargo described that the original cat was very small for the space that it takes up in the traffic circle at the entrance to WCU’s campus. That was only the beginning of the process.  

After deciding that a larger statue was needed, plans for its design began. Wargo acknowledged that students and alumni liked the sweet passive cat statue that has guarded the entrance to the campus for years. However, it was just that, sweet and passive.  

“How can we have a new cat that would be larger, more visible and have the representation of a more competitive spirit of the Catamount?” Wargo asked. 

The new statue has been planned for about a year, with extra time taken to make sure that the new statue was going to be unique for WCU and hold the spirit of the catamount.  

“One of the things we spent a lot of time talking about is, what is a catamount?  If you ask 100 people what is a catamount, you’ll get 100 different answers. We spent a lot of time on that because we needed to communicate that vision to the artist,” she said.   

Diving into the rabbit hole of WCU history shows the catamount has been represented in many ways. Anywhere from a long-tailed mountain lion all the way to a small bobcat-like feline. The vision of a catamount has evolved greatly over 134 years.  

“It’s not like we are a bear or mustang or a cougar which actually exists in the world. A catamount isn’t a biological thing, it’s in the eye of beholder, if you will. It’s a cat of the mountains. It’s a concept of different kinds of big wildcats that one might find in the mountains,” Wargo said. 

She also used a quote from professional golfer and WCU alumni J.T. Posten to describe the catamount design dilemma.  

“He was on one of his first tours with the PGA and he was giving an interview. The journalist said to him, ‘so you know, you went to Western Carolina University,’ he’s like ‘yes ma’am.’ And she said ‘so [WCU’s] mascot is a catamount. What is a catamount?’ He said ‘I don’t know, ma’am. All I know is I am one.’ It was so good… we kind of adopted that spirit of J.T. Poston’s answer. We don’t know, but we know we are one,” Wargo said. 

Photo by Liam Bridgeman

Though no images could be shared at this time, Wargo was delighted to explain some of the new design features.  

“It’s about twice the size of the old cat. The new cat is in a fiercer pose, in a crouch with one paw up and it’s got claws that you can see. It’s got teeth and in more of a pounce pose with a sense of movement to it, which is some criticism that the old cat had,” she said.  

After the plans were finalized to bring a new statue, soon the question of ‘where should the old statue go’ soon arose.  

“One of the things that we heard frequently is that around our primary athletics facility over around Ramsey, there’s no statue of our mascot,” Wargo said, “so, we thought why not kill two birds with one stone? We would move the old cat to a new location where it would still get lots of love and have an opportunity to have a new location for the current cat.”  

Wargo also expressed the importance of having the statue accessible to all students.  

“We deliberately looked for a new location that could be fully accessible to all students,” Wargo said.   

Photo by Liam Bridgeman

“Everybody wants a picture with the cat, and so, we wanted to have the opportunity to keep that tradition in a place that was safe and have an opportunity for a new tradition near our athletics facilities. Even students that have mobility issues can still get to it.” 

“We wanted to make the process inclusive, and we knew it was going to be a piece of public art. And so, the first stop we made was talking about how we could have that be an orderly and inclusive process to pick a new cat. We talked about it with the public art committee, and we decided we needed to have a selection committee,” she said.  

Wargo said, it was equally important to have the director of the local Cherokee center on the selection committee. Under her direction, the statue gained a few significant details to bring some representation of a sense of place. She was an advocate for wanting to make sure the new statue embodied a sense of place and connection to the Cherokee spirit. The wee symbol was designed into the rockwork that the new cat stands on.  

An open call was released for artists to design the statue. Over 100 artists reached out with their ideas for the statue. Artist Jon Hair rose above the vigorous vetting process. Hair is often called America’s most highly commissioned monumental sculptor. He has a long list of credits to his name including the US Olympic Committee, the US Air Force Academy, Computer Sciences Corporation, the Cities of Beijing and Shanghai and the Emmys Hall of Fame. 

“We were able to talk to people who worked with [Hair] and so we felt really comfortable. He had great references, and great examples of his art on display in North Carolina,” Wargo said. 

The new cat statue was installed on October 17th.