You say you saw a… mountain lion?

| 09 Mar 2012 | 11:22

    There aren’t supposed to be mountain lions around these parts. Sure, for decades, there have been sporadic sightings. Sometimes they turn out to be bobcats or fishers, other times, hoaxes. Most reports simply go unsubstantiated. After all, the cats are long gone. Extirpated. Wiped out. This spring, after decades in limbo, the eastern cougar was finally declared extinct.

    Months later, a wild mountain lion that had roamed halfway across the country was killed by a car on the Merritt Parkway. Was he an anomaly? Or are there others out there?

    Authorities insist that if more mountain lions were here, we’d know. “Even small populations of cougars leave physical evidence behind,” said Megan Racey, spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Scat, tracks, hair, genetic samples. They get hit by cars, shot by hunters, caught by traps.”

    New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna doesn’t know whether mountain lions still have protected status in the state, now that they’e been declared locally extinct. “Would you protect a rhinocerous?” he asked rhetorically.

    But if they’re not here, then what are these giant, muscular tan cats with long tails that people keep seeing?

    1500s: Mountain lions, also called cougars, are the most widely distributed mammal in the western hemisphere. Perceiving cougars as a danger to livestock, settlers set bounties, hunt and trap cougars.

    1800s: Trapper Thomas Meacham kills 77 cougars in the Adirondack Mountains.

    1929: “In the eastern States, is virtually extinct. If there is a pair of cougars in the Green Mountains of Vermont, now, it is the highest possible number. If there are six pairs in the mountains between the Catskills and Georgia, I should be agreeably surprised.” – wildlife writer Ernest Thompson Seton

    1973: The eastern cougar is declared endangered. But with no evidence of its existence at all, its status is fast on the way to extinct.

    May 2006: A FedEx driver reports to the Vernon Township police in New Jersey that he found a mountain lion in his truck after making a delivery.

    June 2006: Christine and Sean Fitzgerald hear “ungodlyscreaming” outside their house in Glenwood, New Jersey. Christine goes outside and sees a mountain lion with a cub. She calls to Sean, a Vernon Township policeman. Sean recalls the incident:

    “My wife yelled, ‘Mountain lion.’ I grabbed my gun. We shined a flashlight at it. I got in the car and drove off the driveway and onto the grass by the woodline and shone my headlights on it. It didn’t do anything. I went back in the house. I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to shoot it. What are we going to do?’ I was new, I’m like, god if I call the guys on the midnight shift I’m never going to hear the end of it. I didn’t want to be known as the crazy guy that saw the mountain lion.”

    State authorities tell the Fitzgeralds that they likely saw a rangy coyote or a golden retriever. “I’ve dealt with struck coyotes,” said Sean. “This was a big cat. It had that cat face, and it was huge. It was definitely a mountain lion.”

    The next morning, the Fitzgeralds find dead bodies of a stray cat and three kittens – the source of the screaming – covered in pine needles and brush.

    March 2011: After a five-year study, US Fish & Wildlife determines there is no reproducing population of mountain lions in these parts. The eastern cougar – on the endangered species list since the seventies – is declared extinct. Other than a patch in Florida’s Everglades, the mountain lion has been exterminated east of the Mississippi.

    June 2011: A cougar is killed by a car on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. At first, authorities presume it is an escaped exotic pet. But an autopsy shows he was a wild young male that traveled halfway across the country from South Dakota, the first confirmed wild mountain lion in Connecticut in over a century. He is not an eastern cougar, but a western itinerant that roamed exponentially farther than mountain lions have ever been known to travel. His existence begs the question: what else don’t we know about the shyest creature in North America?

    October 2011: Security guard Chris Homan sees a huge tan cat in Pawling, NY stalk across a narrow back road while patrolling in a Jeep shortly after midnight. At first he takes it to be a bobcat. “It took me by surprise how big it was. With the tail, it was probably like the length of the front of a car – the front bumper.”

    “It happened real quick, it took me off guard. It crept down low, like a cat, and crept away. It was the tail that was very distinct, very long.”

    Homan does some research and discovers the bobcat has a short tail. He concludes the animal he saw must have been a mountain lion. He also learns that mountain lions attack from above. “So I’ll look over my shoulder when I’m outside, but I’m not paranoid about it.”

    November 2011: Weeks after Homan’s sighting, his co-worker, security guard Don Malone sees a mountain lion in the same area, on a tar and pebble road in Pawling, NY.

    “I don’t think I’ve seen one, I’m sure I saw one,” says Malone, insulted by the phrasing of Dirt’s question. “Everyone else in the world thinks I didn’t see one.”

    “It was a flash. I was driving on one of the roads at work. We have a speed limit of 10 miles an hour there. I turned one corner, and sure enough this thing in full extension jumped from a high bank on my right side and landed in the middle of the road. I can’t even say landed because he wasn’t down that long. He hit the middle of the road and jumped off to the left in one motion. He made 25 feet in one jump. As he jumped and landed you could see every muscle moving.”

    The cat – lighter tan than a deer, with a body about four feet long and a tail about two and a half feet long – didn’t seem at all scared, says Malone, but rather annoyed by Malone’s presence. “He looked like I interrupted something. Like just my existence bothered him. This thing didn’t even look at me, no cock of the head, nothing. He was doing what he was doing. He saw me coming down the road and said I’m out of here. I was a cop for 20 years, so I know that look.”

    Malone, on the other hand, was very scared. “The window was open. One of the first things I thought was, this thing is gonna kill me. This all happened in maybe a second a half. And I still am, at my place of employment, very wary of this now.”

    Malone scoffs at the nonbelievers who sent him photos of bobcats, which he sees regularly. “Everybody’s trying to tell me it was except for the fact it didn’t have spots and it had a long tail. It was very muscular. Not muscular like Schwarzenegger, more muscular like a marathon runner… A bobcat looks like a cat that got caught in your garbage can and got its tail cut off. The two aren’t even comparable. This thing is like the royalty of the cat family. The bobcat is like the garbage rat.”

    “It’s okay everybody else thinks I’m crazy. I know what I saw. In fact I go out at night looking for this guy. I’m going to put a leash on him and drag him out to the people who laughed at me. On my regular patrols now, instead of looking in front of me, I look up.”

    November 2011: Cyclist Wayne Gottlieb crests a hill and sees a large wild cat with a foot-long tail standing on Clinton Road in West Milford, between Wawayanda State Park and the Newark watershed. The cat bolts into the underbrush.

    “Coyotes look like mangy dogs. This was a cat. It was at least as big as a big dog: 80 or 85 pounds. The tail was a cat-like tail. Not a coiled tail, a long tail that looked like it had some wave to it. It was multi-toned, mostly kind of golden brown with charcoal accents toward the back.

    I’ve seen wild turkeys, foxes, coyotes, porcupines, bears. This doesn’t correspond to anything I’ve seen on the road.

    I think it caught sight of me and the car that was coming the other way. I was pleased to see it was a little bit scared. I know my 85-pound black lab in her prime could take me off my feet.”