Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mystery Cat Prowls Massachusetts

It seems fitting that a photograph of a mystery cat snapped in West Brookfield should wind up in the EWM in-box on the same day that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the eastern cougar officially extinct, recommending its removal from the endangered species list. The question of whether Massachusetts hosts a wild mountain lion presence will always tease the interested though, so far unanswered it seems. The catamount is a creature elusive and, despite the USFWS' official edict, the aura of the big cats' presence continues to shadow the hills, valleys and flatland of the Bay State, fed by relatively frequent and credible encounters reported by locals. Indeed, the fact that a gray wolf (a creature long thought to be extinguished from Massachusetts) was killed in Shelburne in October, 2007, illustrates the constant possibility of the unknown among us.

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 explorewmass@yahoo.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.




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6 comments:

Tony said...

How tantalizingly awesome is that? Possibly the first real proof... almost!

John (Libertine) said...

The post I deleted asked what was the distance between the tracks. That information was given so I deleted that comment.

Very exciting. Looks like the big cats are back. It can't be a bobcat because of the length of the tail.

John (Libertine) said...

It appears that it is a juvenile if it is in fact a cougar. One would expect the paw prints to be farther apart if it was a fully developed adult cougar. Which is even more exciting for me. Because if it is a juvenile not only are the big cats are back but there is a resident breeding population present...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Last month I saw a large cat which I instantly felt was a wild animal, and ran for the camera. Unfortunately, it's a cheap point-and-shoot, and the photos are lousy. However, the cat was about the size of a retriever or setter dog, sort of a charcoal gray in color, not tawny. I wondered at the time if it could be a bobcat, though I had never seen one before. So glad to see this photo of the mystery cat, because that's what it looked like, only (and this is difficult tell) perhaps slightly smaller. But, muscular and beefier than a housecat, as you say. And much larger.

DSGPSYD said...

I just saw a gray wolf tonight 3/18/12 10:30 PM while walking my dog in the area of Stockbridge/Lenox near Tanglewood. Calmly turned and headed home. We have a home here for 26 years. Freaked me out....

Anonymous said...

I actually saw a cat like this in South Acton Massachusetts around this time. I remember specifically that it had a very long tail and appeared to be jet black. No one believed me so I don't crow about it but this is very interesting. Wish I knew about this then.