The image below is cropped from a photograph taken by Kevin Sloan of West Brookfield this past Saturday (February 27, 2011). Kevin and his wife "scrambled to get the camera" and were fortunate enough to capture this big cat passing through their back yard.
The cat undoubtedly has powerful, muscular features and a full-length, heavy tail. It certainly seems much beefier than a house cat. The tawny color, although darker than expected, is close to that of an eastern cougar. Unfortunately, the uncropped, original photograph (below), with the snow covered expanse between the swing set and the cat skewing the perspective, makes determining the actual size of the creature by eye extremely difficult.
By Kevin's estimate, the cat was about 150 feet away when the above photograph was snapped, with the camera lens adjusted to 10X-12X optical zoom. Tracks in the snow on the left can be seen marking the animal's path. Adult mountain lions are 24 to 30 inches tall at the shoulder and range in length from 5 to 9 feet head to tail tip. Males can weigh over 200 lbs. Females are generally smaller.
The feline that cut through Kevin's yard left the tracks shown in the photograph above, snapped by Kevin soon after the cat was gone. Skeptics have rightly pointed out that the raised features of the tracks are unusual for a track left in snow.
A closer look at the tracks. The proximity of the animal's feet in their positioning is a typical indicator of a cougar moving at a quick pace.
The above graphic, kindly shared with EWM by Bill Kettler, author of the blog, Southwest Backcountry, illustrates both what a mountain lion track looks like as well as the positioning of a lion's feet in motion. To this amateur eye, the images in the graphic and the tracks in Kevin's yard are strikingly similar.
Here is another graphic comparing shapes of tracks; bobcats, dogs and coyotes known denizens of Western Massachusetts. The mountain lion tracks are again very close in appearance to the ones in Kevin's yard.
What do you think? Could the cat in the photograph be a mountain lion? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or email email@example.com
Thank you to the Sloans for sharing their photographs with EWM and its readers. It is much appreciated.
Update March 6, 2011: Having seen the photographs above and a later one taken by Kevin for size reference by placing a household tub with set dimensions in the same spot as the cat, Bill Davis, District Supervisor at the Mass. Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, has determined that the cat in the photograph is not a mountain lion. In correspondence Kevin shared with EWM, Mr. Davis wrote: ..."you’ve taken a nice photo of a domestic cat, albeit a large, chubby one! The prints in the snow confirm this as a cat and are consistent with house cat."
For more on mountain lions in Massachusetts, visit previous EWM post, Massachusetts Mountain Lions and Quabbin Gray Wolves: Putting the "Fur" in Furtive, which has developed a very active comment thread (including numerous reports of local lion and wolf sightings) since its August 4, 2010, publication.
A February 7, 2011 article, On the Trail of the Unusual, in the Telegram mentions the EWM comment thread and explores the cougar question. Here is a link: http://www.telegram.com/article/20110207/NEWS/102070450/1116
Here is a link to the USFWS press release declaring the eastern cougar extinct: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar/newsreleasefinal.html
As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.