In 1992, while building a golf course in the dense woods of Plymouth Mass., I spied a curled burnt-orange tail moving along a tree line. I slowed the tractor and followed the tail for fifty feet to a stand of dense brush where I met the incisors and growl of an angry mountain lion.
For a long second or two our eyes met. The big cat didn’t seem afraid of the big red tractor or the guy on it. I studied the big cat because I knew that few would believe my story. When the big cat motioned toward me I reversed the tractor and sped away to a clearing a mile away.
I sat under a few tall pines, downed a cool jug of water, and recollected what I saw. I kept one eye on the notebook and one on the clearing because if that big cat ran toward me I’d make a run for a nearby office trailer.
A few weeks before, a silver fox ran in front of my car on the road into this two thousand acre wilderness. When I reported the fox sighting to a Mass. Wildlife agent, a state run office that coordinate wild animal information, they responded enthusiastically to my sighting. I knew that they would be more excited about a mountain lion sighting.
I wrote the details in my field book: On September 13, 1992, I saw a mountain lion. Height; about three feet. Weight; about 100 lbs. Length: about six feet. Color: well defined rust orange with white and black streaks on its face. Describe the encounter: I approached the cat while driving a tractor, the cat walked toward a pile of brush that partially covered an animal carcass. The cat and I were fifteen feet apart. The cat turned its head and opened its jaw and I saw huge teeth.
After I finished writing about my cat encounter I drove several miles home so I could report my sighting by phone to Mass. Wildlife. I didn’t tell my locally-based friends who loved to hunt and would surely muster up a cat-hunting posse if they knew. After a few forwarded phone calls I spoke to the designated expert on strange and unusual wildlife sightings.
“I’d like to report a mountain lion sighting in Plymouth,Mass,” I said.
The agent replied: “I hate to be skeptical but the Eastern mountain lion is extinct. What you saw was a bobcat or a fox, a common sight in Southeastern Massachusetts.
“Hold on here,” I said. ” I know what I saw this morning and it matches up with mountain lion information I located in two well-respected field guides. I saw pictures of bobcats and foxes and what I saw doesn’t look like either. If you have a minute I’d like to read my field notes to you.”
“OK, What did you see.”
It took five minutes to read my notes. I summarized by adding that I had no delusional tendencies, mental illness, or need to make up a story because I was building a golf course in the woods and we didn’t want any publicity until the day it opened.
The agent thanked me for the call and said: ” I don’t have much more to tell you. You should contact the University of Maine professor who keeps a list of New England mountain lion sightings.”
After the phone call I felt that a unicorn sighting would get a better response. Despite the pessimism, I wrote a two page letter and sent it to the University of Maine professor. He wrote back a positive response and added my sighting to his list of suspected, not confirmed mountain lion sightings. I didn’t discuss the big cat for two decades.
Twenty years later I found my mountain lion file. I tried to contact the UMaine professor but he retired and didn’t leave any information about Massachusetts mountain lion sightings. I found a photograph I took of an animal footprint a few hundred feet from the sighting. I compared the faded footprint with an image found online, and it looked like a match. I found a You tube video that showed a mountain lion walking, turning its head, and snarling at the camera with fangs bared and it looked exactly like the big cat I saw in the Plymouth woods.
The Cougar Network website contains a registry for North American mountain lion sightings. Mountain Lions are also called cougars. My sighting isn’t on the list but several other Massachusetts sightings are noted. The latest occurred in April 1997 in central Mass. at the Quabbin Reservoir where a state wildlife expert found and later indentified mountain lion scat. The Cougar Network describes a Connecticut confirmation: “A cougar killed on a highway in CT 70 miles from New York City in June 2011 was given a necropsy and found to be wild — and to have originated in the Black Hills of SD.”
- The body of a dead cougar, or a live captured animal
- Photographs (including video)
- DNA evidence (hair, scat, etc.)*
- Track sets verified by a qualified professional
- Other tangible, physical evidence verified by a qualified professional (i.e., prey carcasses, microscopic hair recognition, thin-layer chromatography of scat)
I didn’t have any Class 1 data to send to the registry. Although I had photographed a foot print, it didn’t include a track set, or clearly defined image of all four paws with reference measurements included. The Cougar Network claimed that mountain lions do exist in the Northeast. I continued my quest to register my mountain lion sighting by contacting the National Fish and Wildlife Service, a US Department of the Interior division.
The NWS has a conflicting view of resident mountain lion populations in the Northeast. On March 2,2011 the NWS declared the eastern mountain lion extinct. According to a press release, the NWS conducted a review that resulted in the following: “… the Service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies; conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and requested information from the 21 States within the historical range of the subspecies. No States expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population. According to Dr. Mark McCollough, the Service’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, the subspecies of eastern cougar has likely been extinct since the 1930s.”
Dr. McCollough’s report that led to the extinction conclusion contains information that may explain my sighting. Although the subspecies Eastern Mountain Lion is extinct, mountain lions do exist in the Northeast. These feral mountain lions escaped from game preserves or from pet owners. Some Western mountain lions migrated eastward; the mountain lion killed by a Connecticut motorist was from a Black Hills, South Dakota gene pool. Be careful walking in the back woods of Plymouth,Mass.