Paw Prints

What caught my attention on a midday stroll through the toasty dining room was a cardboard box on the wooden porch floor, next to it a packet of mail bundled with a heavy red rubber band. In the bundle was a sturdy white envelope with a return address to Northfield.

Yes! The pictures from Judy Radebaugh.

I pulled the tab to open the envelope and removed three pieces of paper folded vertically in half, color snapshots inside, three pictures of cat tracks, large ones discovered behind the Radebaugh barn. The three pages were computer printouts of cougar tracks and a brief description of the native big cats believed by experts to be extinct. Not everyone agrees with the ”official assessment,” though, particularly those, like Radebaugh, who have seen cougars. Last year she shared a tale about a large, long-tailed cat she encountered in her back yard. Now this.

Word of her latest discovery came by e-mail:

”Don’t know if you remember me but I wrote to you about a cougar sighting in our back yard here in Northfield. Well, yesterday David and I found some tracks behind our barn and I photographed them. Then I went on the Web and found pictures of cougar tracks. I do not have a scanner so I’m sending them to you to see for yourself.”

The photos show cat tracks measuring about 4½ inches wide. When I saw the ruler in the first photo, I took a similar 12-incher out of my desk’s top drawer, clenched my fist and measured it. Sure enough, the tracks were slightly larger across than my right fist, similar to the tracks brought to my attention a couple of years back while deer hunting with a friend in Conway. A former trapper who spent many a day in the local woods, my buddy had until then been a total non-believer in cougar sightings. Frankly, he had seen no evidence where you’d most expect to find it: in the woods. But as we compared our fists to the clear prints in fresh, wet snow that day, he reconsidered.

”Definitely cat tracks,” he told me as we stood on a steep lip overlooking the Deerfield River, ”but not bobcat; way too big.”

Perhaps the tracks had been left by a Canada lynx, and maybe that’s also what left the tracks photographed by Radebaugh. But they were not bobcat tracks, described by the online Wikipedia as ranging in size from 1 to 3 inches and averaging about 1.8. An online description of Canada lynx tracks say they can measure more than four inches across, which fits the bill for Radebaugh’s and the ones I personally saw. But, according to several online sources, Eastern cougar tracks range from three to four inches across, so you can’t rule that out, either.

The mystery endures.

…  Imagine that! An audible alert tells me a new e-mail has arrived. I maximize Outlook Express and the message is from Radebaugh. More cougar news:

”In the past two days we have had reports from friends that have seen cougars crossing Route 10 here in Northfield. Just too many reports to dismiss.”

Unless, of course, you’re a state or federal wildlife expert.

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