New York State Outlaws Posing With Big Cats, Chauncey the Cougar Snarls Somewhere
If a law recently signed into effect by New York Governor Andrew Coumo had been on the books in the 1960s, it’s possible that the Mercury Cougar might have been named something else. In that alternative universe, the law would also have likely completely changed the direction of the Mercury brand in the 1960s and 1970s. A.9004/S.6903 prohibits exhibitors of big cats, lions, tigers, jaguars/panthers, and cougars (aka mountain lions), from allowing the public to have “direct contact” with the exotic animals. For the purpose of the law, direct contact includes both physical contact like petting or posing with the animal, proximity to it, as well as allowing photography without a permanent physical barrier between them, protecting the animal and the public. The bill was sponsored in the New York Assembly by Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), an animal rights advocate. Somewhere, Chauncey the Mercury Cougar snarls.
The act is primarily aimed at roadside zoos and traveling carnivals, things that have existed for generations. Rosenthal says that she became aware of the practice before people apparently recently started posting photos of themselves posing with big cats online, tiger selfies. It’s one of more than a dozen bills the assemblywoman has introduced on the premise of protecting animals.
Without a doubt, had the law been in place when the Mercury Cougar was introduced in 1966, while it’s possible that Ford Motor Company might have still named the car the Cougar, the use of live animals in that model’s introduction and marketing probably wouldn’t have happened, at least the way it was implemented. Also, since the success of the Cougar car and the use of live animals in its promotion led to Mercury’s use of “The Sign of the Cat” tagline in overall brand marketing, that too would have been unlikely under New York state’s new legislation.
The name Cougar as a car model name at Ford predates its use by Mercury as it was one of the names under consideration for what became the Mustang. As a matter of fact you can see photos of a mockup of what looks very much like the Mustang II concept car from when Ford stylists were still trying out ideas in 1963 and it’s wearing badging with a big cat, not a pony.
Ford had used the name publicly on a couple of concept cars including the Cougar II, a potential Corvette competitor built on a Shelby Cobra chassis with a 289 V8 that was shown at the same 1964 New York World’s Fair where the production Mustang first debuted. Apparently, the idea for a “man’s car” to slot in below the Thunderbird in Ford’s pricing scheme had resulted in a project called the T-7, also predating the Mustang. When the pony car was introduced to huge success, the T-7 project and the Cougar name were moved over to the Mustang platform.
Introduced as a 1967 model by Lincoln Mercury on Sept. 30, 1966, the Cougar’s launch had been preceded by an elaborate public relations campaign to introduce the car, and it seems that a particular large cat, Chauncey the cougar, was part of that campaign from the beginning. The idea to use a live animal is attributed to Gayle Warnock, Ford’s PR director, and his assistant, Bill Peacock. Chauncey, then three years old, had been born in captivity. It’s owners had fed it dog feed and a nutritional deficiency resulted in temporary paralysis and lifelong hip problems. It’s thought that Chauncey’s trademark snarl was a defensive mechanism to compensate for his lack of leaping ability.
Animal trainers Ted and Pat Derby rescued Chauncey as a four month old kitten, nursed it to health and put him to work in their California business, Animal World, that supplied exotic animals to the television and movie industry. One of Chauncey’s stablemates, Roxanne the bobcat, was used to promote the Mercury Bobcat, that brand’s version of the Ford Pinto. In later years, big cats would be used to sell another small Mercury, the Lynx, a badge engineered Ford Escort.
Chauncey’s work in Cougar commercials is well known. The big cat appeared in commercials with the likes of Farah Fawcett and won the first of multiple P.A.T.S.Y awards in 1969. That was an award that was formerly given to animal performers in Hollywood. With changing attitudes towards animal rights and animal performers, that award has since been retired.
From the Suburbanite Economist on July 31, 1974:
“A television celebrity with a flair for a snarl will appear Aug. 3 at Van Dahm Lincoln Mercury Inc . 10201 S. Cicero Ave, Oak Lawn. Chauncey the H-year-old cougar star of Lincoln- Mercury division’s Cougar XR 7 and Sign-of-the-Cat commercials, and Christopher — the two-month-old cougar cub featured in Mercury Comet commercials. The cougars are two of 150 wild animals orphans who live at Ted and Pat Derb’s Love is an Animal, a 300-acre farm near Buellton, California”
Chauncey and Roxanne also made public appearances, which is where the Derby’s would have run afoul of the new law in New York. The animals were put on display at Mercury dealers, where the public was invited to watch them walk around, climb up on the cars and hopefully reproduce Chauncey’s famous pose on top of a Cougar. Photography was encouraged, and the public was protected from the big cats by just velvet ropes and the Derby’s training and handling of the animals. Those dealer appearances lasted at least until 1975, when Chauncey went on to big cat heaven.
It’s not clear when Lincoln-Mercury ended the dealer visits, but they continued to use live exotics into the 1980s, with cougars appearing live at the Chicago Auto Show in both 1980 and 1981.
That velvet rope used to keep the crowd from the cougar (and vice versa) at the 1980 Chicago Auto Show would not pass muster in New York State today, which now requires permanent physical barriers between the public and live big cats on display.
The Cougar more than doubled original sales expectations, selling more than 150,000 units in the first year it was on sale. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Cougar nameplate would go on to more or less keep the Mercury brand on life support for the next four decades. When the Mustang was downsized to the Pinto platform in the mid 1970s, Chauncey eventually got a bigger Cougar to lay upon as it moved to the midsize Torino platform to become a sibling to the Thunderbird. Chauncey became the face of the brand, sitting on dealer signs in brand advertising as he had lounged on the roofs of Cougars. “The Sign of the Cat” became the brand’s overall tagline, as mentioned, other Mercury models were given feline names, and Chauncey’s snarl graced most Mercury commercials.
Despite the Cougar’s success, the bean counters in Dearborn wanted to kill the model in the 1970s. Ben Bidwell, who later was the number two executive at Chrysler, was then in charge of Lincoln-Mercury and he didn’t want to lose the model. By then, “The Sign of the Cat” was being used to promote Lincoln-Mercury dealers, with whom the tagline, and Chauncey, were popular.
There was a meeting in Ford’s Glass House HQ presided over by Henry Ford II. While the source doesn’t say when, I’m guessing that the time frame was when Ford was busy creating the Mustang II and trying to decide what to do with the Cougar, still based on the large 1972-73 Mustang.
Bidwell was in the minority at the meeting. Most of those attending thought the current, rather bloated, Cougar wasn’t very good and that it was going to be too expensive to replace it. The Deuce went around the room, asking for opinions, which were mostly negative. Finally he turned to Bidwell and said, “We haven’t heard from you yet, Bidwell. What do you think?” Bidwell replied, “I just have one thing to say, Mr. Ford. You can’t have a cat house without a cat.” After The Deuce started to laugh, the other executives joined in and the Cougar was saved. The nameplate survived until 2002, though by then it shared a platform with the front wheel drive Ford Probe.
Pat Derby seems to have changed her thoughts over the years about the use of animal performers. A year after Chauncey died she and Ted Derby divorced, reportedly over his use of cattle prods in animal training. She always asserted that she used kind, humane training methods. Pat Derby continued to display live cougars for Mercury for a few years but by 1984 Derby had retired her own animals and Pat and her companion Ed Stewart started PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a sanctuary for captive wildlife. Here is their mission statement:
PAWS is dedicated to the protection of performing animals, to providing sanctuary to abused, abandoned and retired captive wildlife, to enforcing the best standards of care for all captive wildlife, to the preservation of wild species and their habitat and to promoting public education about captive wildlife issues.
Pat Derby passed away in 2013 at the age of 70. Her ex-husband Ted was killed in 1976 by a neighboring rancher upset over the alleged killing of some livestock by Derby’s animals.
Pat Derby, Ed Stewart and Christopher, Chauncey’s replacement, at the 1979 Chicago Auto Show.
In his day Chauncey became quite the star, he even had two “doubles” to keep up with the demand for appearances. However, in a 1975 interview with a local newspaper covering a dealer appearance, Ted Derby insisted that anytime you’d see a cougar with a Mercury car, a Mercury sign or a model like Ms. Fawcett, that was Chauncey. Besides his doubles, Chauncey was also reproduced as a plush toy in a variety of sizes, both as promotional items and for sale. If I have the story down correctly, one life-size version came as standard equipment with the first high performance XR-7 Cougars in 1967. Those big stuffed cougars were also used as part of showroom displays, resting on top of Cougars.
To give you an idea of what the 1967 Mercury Cougar looks like with the hood down, here’s an original condition survivor from the Mid Michigan Mustang Show. Full gallery here.
While the white Cougar with a black vinyl top pictured here apparently came with a plush Chauncey, it’s not original equipment, the car or the plush toy. The car has been restored and the owner told me that his copy of Chauncey was new old stock from a dealer’s back room. The car is an XR-7 Dan Gurney Special and the photographs are from two different events, Greenfield Village’s 2014 Motor Muster and the 2013 Mustang Memories show. Gurney won races in Cougars for FoMoCo in TransAm and he was a member of the Lincoln-Mercury Sports Panel with other notable athletes like Jesse Owens and Byron Nelson.
Dan Gurney and Cale Yarborough raced this Bud Moore prepared Mercury Cougar successfully in the Trans Am series. Full gallery here.
I’m not sure how many people or exotic cats New York’s new law will protect. The institutions it targets, roadside attractions and carnies, are not known for treating animals to the standards of Pat Derby, and wild animals don’t have thousands of years of domestication and breeding out of aggression, so it’s probably a good idea. Still, I wasn’t able to find any record of anyone being hurt in all the years that Mercury used live big cats at dealer and other public appearances.
If you attend enough car shows you’ll see how owners like to add magazines, documentation and scale models to make their cars’ displays stand out. The live sized plush Chauncey, because it came with the cars and was used by dealers, and even more so, because the real cat and its image was so instrumental in establishing the Mercury brand’s subsequent identity, not only helps the car stand out at a car show, it also reminds show visitors of some of the now deceased nameplate’s history.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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I have to question Ford dropping the Cougar name or any of its advertising based on a New York state law. It's just one state, and has no jurisdiction over advertising/appearances in other states. In fact, it could be a boost to advertising: "see Chauncy, live, right here in Cincinnati. He's banned in New York!" That might sell better than "banned in Boston"! If you don't think so, recall the Pace Picante Sauce ad touting it's origin in San Antonio, while the other brand was made in New York City ("Get a rope").
Would the New York law have killed the Cougar nameplate? I doubt it. They would have just shot the ad in California where the laws and practice in place are more friendly to handling animals being filmed (if that weren't so, Hollywood would have trouble shooting animal scenes!). As for the live Cougar appearances at auto shows and dealers those were a bad idea from the get go in my opinion. I think it is both a credit to Ford for taking the events seriously and paying the money for the appropriate trainers as well as sheer dumb luck that it didn't become a terrible idea at some point between the 60's and the 80's. Call me a stick in the mud but I am glad that bit of malarkey is behind us.