August 7, 2007

On the Prowl: Fisher Cat Sightings Are Rising in Connecticut

By Stephen P. Clark, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

Aug. 7--STAMFORD -- The rustling of leaves caught the attention of Grace LeVander as she had dinner with her husband, Carl, in the screened gazebo outside their North Stamford home one evening last month.

It was about 7 p.m. when Grace spotted what appeared to be a fisher cat about 30 feet away. When Carl moved closer to get a better look, he discovered two more fisher cats.

"They moved like a weasel, like a mink," said Carl, 77.

"It was startling because we've never seen anything like that before," said Grace, who has lived in the house with her husband for nearly 40 years.

The animals disappeared into the woods as suddenly as they appeared, the LeVanders said.

Fisher cats are large, secretive, carnivorous members of the weasel family that gorge on small mammals, such as squirrels, mice, chipmunks and sometimes house cats, but rarely fish. Distinguished by their wedge-shaped snouts and dark bodies, fishers have retractable claws and can rotate their hind paws 180 degrees, allowing them to grasp limbs and climb down trees head first.

They tend to stay in wooded areas, according to wildlife biologists in Rhode Island, where there has been a rash of fisher sightings and reports of them attacking dogs.

A West Greenwich, R.I., woman told police last month that a fisher attacked her German shepherd in her back yard and lunged at her husband when he tried to rescue the pet. It then retreated into the woods.

Another woman in the same Rhode Island town reported a fisher aggressively chased her and her golden retriever down a road as they were taking a walk. But authorities said those attacks are rare.

In Stamford, there has been a string of pet disappearances. It is unknown whether they are related to fishers. Stamford Animal Control officials did not return messages.

The fisher cat nearly vanished from New England a century ago as its habitat was eliminated during deforestation and trapping, wildlife biologists said.

But fisher cats have made a comeback over the last 50 years as abandoned farmland began reverting back to forests and the animals started breeding.

In Connecticut, there were 26 sightings reported in 21 towns in 1994-95, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

By 2004-05, the last year data on sightings were collected, there were 160 sightings from 85 towns. Of those sightings, four were in Greenwich and one each in Westport and Wilton.

During that period, two fishers were killed by cars in Greenwich and one in Westport.

In 2005-06, 166 fisher cats were trapped in the state.

"We have fisher cats in probably every town of the state except the real urban centers," said Dale May, director of the state DEP wildlife division.

People should not be worried if they come across a fisher cat, said Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist with the state DEP.

"It's very rare for them to cause problems," Rego said.

Carl LeVander said he's not worried about seeing more fisher cats.

"I think this is a live-and-let-live situation," he said.

But Grace LeVander said she's more cautious.

"I'll tell you if I was in the yard and they were in the yard, I would get out of there fast," she said with a laugh.


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