September 23, 2007

Cougar Sightings Real or Imagined?

By Bill Cummings, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

Karen Young was relaxing on the deck of her Oxford home on Mother's Day when she saw something big moving in her backyard.

Something big, as in a really BIG cat. "I couldn't talk. It was 40 feet away. My husband said 'Holy ., what the heck is that,' " Young said. "It looked at me and then it turned away and walked into the woods. I didn't have a camera and I was trying to get the dog into the house. We called the [state Department of Environmental Protection] and they said, 'Don't worry, there are no mountain lions in Connecticut,' " Young said.

Despite the DEP's opinion, Young is convinced the big cat in her backyard was a mountain lion.

"I've seen a bobcat and this was no bobcat," Young said.

"It wasn't a deer. It was bigger than a German shepherd and had pointy ears. It's face looked like a female lion. My neighbor saw it too. It was something," she said.

From Virginia to Maine, and across Connecticut, sightings like the one Young reported are increasingly common. Hundreds of reports are logged each year in New England, across the Eastern states and in Connecticut, of big cats wandering wooded areas, deep forests, farmland and suburban communities like Shelton and Oxford. "It's way beyond anyone's imagination," said Bill Betty, a 61 year-old cougar researcher from Rhode Island who has spent the last seven years studying big cats. Betty is convinced there are cougars in Connecticut and is determined to prove it.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year jumped into the debate when it launched a new study to determine what people are seeing and if it's the historic Eastern Cougar that once roamed freely from Virginia to Maine, and throughout Northeastern Canada. In western states, big cats are called mountain lions; in Eastern states they are called cougars or pumas.

"We have no doubt that cougars are out there," said Diana Weaver, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast office in Hadley, Mass.

"My husband saw one. Our question is one of origin," said Weaver.

Weaver said the fish and wildlife service does not believe there are native, reproducing populations of cougars in states like Connecticut. But at the same time, she said the service does not discount the possibility that cougars are present in states like Connecticut. It's likely, Weaver said, that they either escaped from game farms or let loose by owners who once held them as exotic pets.

It is illegal in Connecticut to keep a cougar as a pet.

Dale May, director of the state DEP's wildlife division, said it's possible former pet cougars are in the state. But, he stressed, DEP has found no evidence of a reproducing, native population of cougars.

"A lot of wildlife from Colonial times was wiped out by hunting and livestock protection. The nearest reproducing population is hundreds of miles away. It's unlikely they could disperse and show up here one day," May said.

Still, May conceded it's possible cougars, which were once pets are roaming the state's woods, but added there is no hard evidence of that. "A wallaby [a small kangaroo] was hit earlier this year by a car in Marlbourgh. We have laws over what people can possess. People should not be allowed to possess dangerous animals."

The Eastern Cougar is on the federal endangered species list, and many believe the species is extinct, killed off decades ago by hunters and farmers because they killed sheep and cattle and threatened growing population centers.

Weaver said federal officials are aware of the large number of cougar sightings across the Northeast. In fact, the agency's Web site offers a forum to post sightings, and there are stories from every Eastern state, including Connecticut. "We believe the Eastern Cougar is extinct. There is no firm evidence of a reproducing population," Weaver said.

"However, we continue to see reports of cougars. A lot of people believe they did not come from this continent and that they were imported here, either as pets or for game farms. There is a certain genetic profile to each cougar. Some people believe these cougars came from South America," Weaver said. Every five years, the national fish and wildlife service reviews the species on its endangered list to see if they are extinct and should be removed. A review can also result in moving a species from endangered to threatened, which means they are making a comeback, or the species can be removed because it is no longer at risk. Weaver said considerable research has already been conducted on cougars, involving both sightings and physical evidence, such as droppings and carcasses. A report will be published later this year, she said.

"This is our highest profile review. It's a charismatic species. A lot of people are interested," Weaver said.

In a press release announcing its review, the fish and wildlife service pointed out that in 1997 a cougar kitten was killed by a vehicle on a road in Kentucky. That same year, cougar scat [droppings] was found in Massachusetts, and a cougar was killed, and another captured, in West Virginia in 1976.

"Videos, photos and other evidence of cougars exist. The public, including wildlife biologists, have reported thousands of unverified sightings," the service said in a written statement.

May said that all sounds impressive, and said he hopes the fish and wildlife service will decide whether the Eastern Cougar is extinct or not. "It's important to us. They need to decide once and for all if it's extinct. I don't envy their task."

Meanwhile, May stressed that no one has produced a dead cougar, which would be the best evidence that they are in Connecticut. "I can't imagine they will get physical evidence. We are here every day. I've talked to people who describe a mountain lion to the tee. But you got there and there are coyote tracks."

In an example of how people can make mistakes when they think they see a cougar, a Shelton woman conceded this past week that the cougar she claimed to have seen near her home was actually likely a pit bull.

After seeing the animal again, the Monroe Road woman snapped a photo and sent it to Shelton police. She acknowledged that what she saw was most likely a dog.

Given Connecticut's large number of roads and dense population, May said it seems logical that by now one would have been hit by a car or otherwise killed, and the body would have been produced as evidence.

He said previously captive cougars would have difficulty surviving in the wild for a long period of time.

And it's not a matter of a phantom animal. There has to be a population of animals that are reproducing, and there is no evidence of that," May said.

At one time, big cats roamed the Eastern states freely, but quickly became the first wildlife casualty of European settlement. Early settlers exterminated bison and elk, and nearly eliminated deer. They systematically shot, trapped and poisoned cougars because the big cats competed with settlers for large game and killed their livestock, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1846, naturalist John Audubon wrote, "the animal, which has excited so much terror in the minds of the ignorant and timid, has been nearly exterminated in all our Atlantic states."

The Eastern Cougar was the first species added to the federal endangered species list.

"There are sightings everywhere, a tremendous amount of sightings," Betty, the Rhode Island cougar expert, said.

"You can dismiss some. But when someone tells me one jumped off a barn roof, and there are six witnesses, you realize that we are not looking at crop circles. I know of up to 480 sightings in New England and 100 in Connecticut. I've seen cougars myself," Betty said. Betty is scheduled to present his research and efforts at proving cougars are living in New England, entitled "Cougars in Connecticut", during a presentation today at 7 p.m. at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.

"His presentation is amazing," said Michael Madura, marketing director for the nature center.

"We have had an overwhelming response to this and it's already going to be standing room only," Madura said.

Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti said he has not received any more reports of big cats in his town since the incident a week or so ago. "No one has ever confirmed or gotten a good look at the suspect. I'm not downplaying it. But it would be highly unusual for this type of animal to make its home in a populated area."

Still, Lauretti is asking residents to report sightings, and said he's concerned about safety if such an animal encountered a small child.