I could hear the panic in my wife’s voice. Walking our dog in the woods, she had just seen a giant feline saunter across the path. She was calling from a trail in Pootatuck State Forest, the 1,200-acre strip of nature occupying the hills above Squantz Pond in New Fairfield. As I rushed to meet her in the woods, she told me what she had seen. It was a lion-like cat with a tan coat and no spots that was about three times the size of our 30- to 35-pound dog.
Bobcats are found across Connecticut, but even fully grown they are much smaller than what she was describing, only weighing between 18 and 35 pounds. They also generally have spots on their fur.
Had she just seen a mountain lion?
A bobcat’s tail is short and bob-like, while mountain lions have long, curving tails that can grow up to 3 feet. (My wife didn’t get a look at the tail.) Another important difference: bobcats are found in Connecticut while mountain lions are not. Or at least they’re not supposed to be.
Officially, the last mountain lions were hunted to extinction here in the late 1800s. But that doesn’t stop people from seeing them. While other states have their Bigfoot and sea monster sightings, in Connecticut, and throughout much of the Northeast, we see mountain lions — even when we’re told such sightings are unlikely, if not outright impossible.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection receives 50-100 reports of mountain lions each year, says Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist with the department. That’s only a fraction of the supposed sightings. Ask people who spend time outside Connecticut cities and you will hear firsthand or secondhand accounts of mountain lions. Tim Abbott, the regional land conservation and greenprint director for the Housatonic Valley Association, says that during a lecture on mountain lions last winter at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, when the speaker asked if anyone had seen a mountain lion, half of the roughly 400 people in attendance raised their hands.
These sightings are so persistent that there is a conspiracy theory that says DEEP officials know mountain lions are in the state but cover up their existence. What would motivate DEEP officials to do this isn’t clear. In some versions, state officials don’t want to alarm people about the feline predators in their midst. In another version, it’s about habitat protection and the onerous federal regulations the state would have to follow if we found a mountain lion within the state. In yet another variant, DEEP is said to be helicoptering mountain lions in to help control the deer population.
Sometimes referred to as the ghosts of the forest, mountain lions or cougars are stealthy hunters that are hard to spot, even in areas they are known to inhabit. Even so, for decades, skeptics dismissed mountain lion sightings in Connecticut out of hand, pointing out that if the cats were here in anywhere close to the number of reported sightings, there would be DNA and physical evidence of their presence, not to mention photos and videos.
Then in June 2011, there were reports of a mountain lion in Greenwich and, for the first time, a photo. Based on this blurry photo and pawprints, DEEP confirmed it was likely a mountain lion. The next week, on June 11, the cat was hit and killed by an SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford. It was a 140-pound male mountain lion, the first confirmed in Connecticut in more than 100 years. Initially, officials believed it had been released from a private handler. As unlikely as it sounds, it was a more believable theory than some of the alternatives, among them that the cat was evidence of a breeding population in the state that was being kept secret by DEEP. However, the captive lion theory was also wrong. A month after the cat was struck and killed, researchers confirmed it had traveled more than 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Genetic testing placed the animal in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the cat had been sighted at several different points during its long journey east. The journey is chronicled in the 2016 book Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg.
The arrival of a real mountain lion in the state reframed the discussion in Connecticut surrounding the animal. After all, if one mountain lion had wandered here, didn’t that mean that others could have?
To answer these and other questions about sightings of mountain lions, I turned to DEEP’s Rego, who has investigated many purported cougar sightings over the past three decades. “I always hold out the possibility of a sighting to be genuine, but at the same time, over decades of experience, we know that the vast majority are misidentifications and a small number are actually hoaxes,” he says. People have been known to submit photos of real mountain lions taken in other states and claim they were taken in Connecticut. But honest misidentifications are more common. Bobcats are most frequently misidentified by the public as mountain lions, but they’re not the only animals mislabeled. “We’ve had coyotes misidentified. We’ve had housecats misidentified as mountain lions and even deer,” Rego says.
Even in parts of the country where there are documented breeding populations of mountain lions, there are still many false reports. Working in the 1980s in southern California, where there are cougars, biologist Paul Beier said that 95 percent of cougar sightings they investigated turned out to be misidentifications.
But what about the sightings in Connecticut that are made by experienced outdoorsmen and women, people who know the difference between bobcats and mountain lions? My wife is not a wildlife expert, but is not prone to flights of fancy. She had seen an animal on foot in broad daylight. It was a spotless cat she estimated at close to 100 pounds. That had to be a mountain lion. Didn’t it?
Not really, Rego says. He explains that we frequently overestimate the size of animals in the wild, particularly ones we are afraid of. “It’s extremely rare for a person to see a wild animal and to underestimate its size. There’s something in human nature to overestimate the size of wild animals we see, especially if we get a brief glance and if the animal is moving.” He adds, “Bobcats can get pretty large and some people believe they should have pretty visible spots and very often they’re pretty uniform in color.” This is especially true in the summer, when my wife’s sighting occurred.
She didn’t claim to see the mountain lion’s long tail, but optical illusions can lead people to think they’ve seen a tail. Rego says that “the way bobcats stride when they run, often times a rear leg is kicked up in the back and that could be mistaken for a long tail.”
Abbott, of the Housatonic Valley Association, is equally skeptical of the vast majority of mountain lion sightings. He’s even had his own false sighting. Once at dusk driving in the Berkshires, he saw what he initially thought was a cat-like creature that was far bigger than a bobcat leap across the road. “My heart was saying, ‘Maybe this is it,’ ” he recalls. But further inspection revealed it was a very large coyote.
Even so, Abbott has heard of mountain lion sightings from what he deems reliable sources and believes it’s possible that other animals have made the difficult, some say almost miraculous trek, from the West to Connecticut. “I’m confident that we get occasional outlier animals.”
Rego says that if there were many other animals like the 2011 cat that died in Milford, there would be more visual or physical evidence. For decades, wildlife experts should have been seeing occasional scat and paw prints in the winter. There also should have been evidence of animals killed by the predators and roadkill. In Florida, where mountain lions are known as panthers, dozens are killed each year by cars.
There’s also the lack of visual evidence, more glaring each passing year as so many hikers and hunters now carry phones with cameras. Hunters and property owners have also set up tens of thousands of trail cameras at various locations throughout the state. To date, no footage of a mountain lion has surfaced.
So why does the conspiracy theory that they’re here in significant numbers persist?
A quick Google search reveals that the theory is not limited to Connecticut and similar tales are told throughout the Northeast. Joseph Uscinski, professor of political science at the University of Miami, and a conspiracy theory expert, says these types of theories are not uncommon.
“Almost every state has some sort of legend of something that’s hiding somewhere,” he says. Uscinski, a Connecticut native, adds that the theory that the government is covering up the existence of mountain lions is likely motivated by a distrust of authority. “If you have a worldview in which the government is conspiring to do weird stuff, than that’s what you’re going to see, and all the evidence is going to point to exactly what you believe,” he says.
Rego has many reasons why a conspiracy to conceal mountain lions by his colleagues at DEEP is impossible. He points out that when there was a real mountain lion in the state in 2011, his office publicized it immediately. But what might be his most compelling argument is that since this is Connecticut, the budget is too limited. “We don’t have extra money to do secret projects,” he says.
The history of this theory in Connecticut and New England goes back long before our current era of fake news. Stephen Gencarella, professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts and a Connecticut resident, says, “The government coverup is only the latest version of something that could stretch back in the oral tradition to precolonial times.” He notes that supposed mountain lion sightings spiked in the late 1800s and early 1900s shortly after the animals disappeared from New England’s woods. Rumors of their hidden presence persisted. But sometimes, instead of mountain lions, people thought they saw other creatures in the Connecticut woods, of which authorities were supposedly aware. Sometimes people feared fishers (erroneously attributing the blood-curdling screams of foxes to these hard-to-spot creatures), and in the late 1930s, after several animals were slain under strange circumstances in Glastonbury, the Hartford Courant dubbed the lion-like creature supposedly responsible, the Glawackus. For decades afterward, there were reported sightings of the mythical creature prowling the woods around town.
More recently, unexplained animal sightings in Connecticut and other states became more and more associated with mountain lions. In the 1930s, Bruce Wright, an influential wildlife manager from New Brunswick, Canada, began gathering reports of sightings of mountain lions in the East and searching for their tracks. Over time, Wright became convinced Eastern cougars lived in small pockets in the deep woods. His mentor, Aldo Leopold, a prominent wildlife biologist, also believed this, but felt if people learned about these populations, they would be hunted to extinction. (Throughout history, people have had a deep fear of these creatures, hounding and hunting them mercilessly.) Wright, however, didn’t agree with his mentor and began writing publicly about mountain lions in the East. He published his first book in 1959, The Ghost of North America: The Story of the Eastern Panther.
In the decades that followed, many cougar enthusiasts came to share Wright’s conclusions, at least at first. But as Eastern cougar search efforts became more organized and still there were no concrete signs of the creatures, many became more skeptical. Today, instead of focusing on cougar sightings in Eastern states, many cougar enthusiasts want to protect the animal from being hunted in the regions in which they are currently found. They also want to foster the formation and protection of migration pathways for them and other animals to enter new states.
Abbott believes it is possible that more mountain lions such as the one that was killed in Milford in 2011 could migrate here. “We have plenty of suitable habitat,” he says. “What we do not have is a secure predator corridor.”
Sue Morse, the founder and science director of Keeping Track, a Vermont-based organization dedicated to protecting wildlife habitats, has studied mountain lions over her career as a naturalist, and says the majority of cougar sightings in the Northeast are misidentifications. However, that doesn’t mean that mountain lion sightings are all false or that there haven’t been roaming cats sighted. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be more sightings in the future, as these animals have been known to reclaim areas their species once roamed.
“There is a big difference between Tuesday when none of us saw a moose in our region and then Thursday we did,” Morse says. “Time changes all and I’m not going to shut the door on the future and say that a breeding population of cougars is not here — because the day after tomorrow they could be here — it’s just a matter of time.”
Though a deer hunter herself, Morse is opposed to the way mountain lions have been hunted in the western U.S., where they are found. “Sport hunting for cougars is not sustainable and shouldn’t be allowed to go on. Young pumas dispersing from Western habitats are being killed at the source, compromising the East’s critical opportunity for ecosystem health and the return of an apex carnivore.”
Regardless of where they are found, or whether people want to hunt or protect them, people are enchanted by mountain lions. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I’m always amazed at the sheer volume of people who are interested in cougars, more even than wolves,” she says. She adds, “I think it’s because a lot of people are fascinated by wild cats; they are the embodiment of the wild.”
There is also something appealing about the idea that there is an animal out there so cunning that it has escaped our notice and the eyes of our cameras. That maybe, just maybe, what my wife and others saw wasn’t a bobcat that seemed bigger in the thrill of the moment, but a real, honest-to-goodness mountain lion, a long-lost ghost of the forest.
BOBCATS vs. MOUNTAIN LIONS
Bobcats: 15-35 pounds
Mountain Lions: 100 all the way up to 200 pounds
Bobcats: 28-37 inches
Mountain Lions: Can grow up to 6 feet long
Bobcats: Whiskered face and are gray in the winter and tan in the summer, with black spots on their fur that are not always visible. They are named for their short (bobbed) tail which is often about six inches in length.
Mountain Lions: Large tan cats with a distinctive two to three-foot curving tail, that can almost touch the ground as they walk.
COMPARED TO A HOUSE CAT
Bobcats: They are about two to three times larger than their distant relative.
Mountain Lions: They can have similar coloring and their tails can look alike, which has lead to some house cats being mistaken for them, even though mountain lions are much, much bigger.
Bobcats: They are are the only wild cat found in the state and the most common in North America. DEEP believes their numbers have increased in recent years. They reside in all eight counties, however, they exist in greatest number in the northwestern corner of the state.
Mountain Lions: They are officially extinct. Despite frequent claims, there has only been one confirmed mountain lion sighting since the late 1800s here.
ALSO KNOWN AS
Bobcats: Though technically a type of lynx, they are distinct from other species of lynx such as the Canadian lynx.
Mountain Lions: cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts. Black panthers, which are not found in the U.S., are actually black jaguars or leopards.