Betty Waidlich may start getting strange looks again from people who recognize her making her daily rounds at the supermarket, gas station or beauty salon. A half century later, she’s letting the cat out the bag, so to speak — a big cat she told friends about in 1956, when she was stunned to see a “huge black panther” out a bedroom window from her Mineral Road residence in Montague, MA.

Waidlich remembers the year precisely because it was daughter Donna’s year of birth. The month was August. Newborn Donna and siblings Linda and John were right there with their mom for the sighting. “John was only two at the time,” Waidlich said. “But he still remembers it. I held him up to the window to see it. I guess it left a deep impression. Linda was 6. She remembers it very well. … My friends? Well, their response was, ‘What were you drinking?’ ”

The landed Waidlich estate sits on an idyllic spot near the confluence of the Millers and Connecticut rivers, behind the Turners Falls Airport — a location long known to wildlife enthusiasts as a sanctuary. So the Waidlich’s had grown accustomed to seeing wildlife but nothing quite as exotic as a panther.

“I don’t think a day has gone by without me thinking about that cat,” she said. “Then, when I read in your column that Rocky Stone saw a black panther out his window in Athol in 1956, I felt vindicated. I knew it was the same year I saw mine, and Athol isn’t that far up the Millers River.”

What drew the cat to the Waidlich property was a backyard fire pit, where the family had enjoyed many cookouts that summer. “Friends would come over with their kids and we had been cooking out regularly, usually steak. You know how kids are, they’d run around, leave bones and scraps, and animals would clean them up.”
Waidlich said she sensed there was something new in the area because her dogs seemed unnerved for a day or two, but she never suspected a panther.

“The dogs were acting funny, kind of nervous, and I knew something had been there because I could see where it had been scratching for food,” she recalled. “I’d say the cat probably hung around for a couple of days and moved on.”

The family had set up a tent for the kids near the fire pit, and Waidlich spotted the animal exiting the canvas shelter. “It emerged from the tent, made its way to the fire pit, rummaged around a bit and was gone, never to be seen again,” at least not by the Waidlich family.

Stone doesn’t recall whether he saw his cat before or after Waidlich during that summer of ’56. His best guess is earlier than August. He was looking out his bedroom window off Highland Avenue in Athol when he spotted the black panther in a neighbor’s yard. “I probably watched it for a minute,” he recalled. “It jumped up into an apple tree, jumped down, walked through a sandbox, dropped down over a steep bank and disappeared. After it had been gone a while, I tried to find a good footprint in the sand, but it hadn’t left a clear print”

A half century ago, big-cat sightings in the Northeast were akin to UFO sightings, very rare, so it took guts to go public. But there seems to be an upsurge in sightings over the past quarter century and people are more willing to share their tales. Take Jody McKenzie of Conway. She doesn’t need to dredge her long-term memory to describe what she saw. Her sighting occurred recently. No, it wasn’t black, but it wasn’t difficult to identify, either. It was a mountain lion. No doubt about it. And it may be no coincidence that the sighting occurred within a mile of the cougar seen by hunter Mike Pekarski and within the same distance of a set of tracks this scribbler saw with his own aging brown eyes, overlooking the Deerfield River. The sighting was also “in the neighborhood” of several others both reported and not yet written about by me. They’re in the hopper.

The McKenzie sighting occurred about 5 p.m. on Valentines Day. She had just returned home and was walking her golden retriever to the mailbox. When the dog started acting peculiar and growled, McKenzie looked up and witnessed the mountain lion crossing the back 40. “It was no more than 100 feet from us and there was no mistaking it. It was about as tall as my dog with a sleek, curvy body and a long tail that curled at the end. It was crossing where many deer and coyotes seem to have a path. The mountain lion looked our way but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. My dog stayed at my side, growling — she seemed to know she shouldn’t charge. … I wish I had a camera in my hand but I knew if I went into the house it would be gone by the time I got back. So I just enjoyed watching it move across the field.”

Eastern cougars (felis concolor couguar) are also known as catamounts, pumas, mountain lions, and panthers. According to MassWildlife, the last known animal in Massachusetts was in Hampshire County in 1858, about the same time of the last official record of such an animal in Pennsylvania. The tint of their brown coats range from yellowish to reddish to grayish, and possibly black, although I have found no confirmation through cursory Internet research. Stone and other say they’ve seen it written that black ones exist, but cannot recall where. There is a Florida panther that’s brown, but it’s a different species. Black panthers are associated with the Southern Hemisphere

Adult mountain lion body length runs between five and nine feet, including the 28- to 35-inch tail. Weight ranges from 80 to 210 pounds. An average adult male weighs 160 pounds, while a female runs about 135. Their diet in the Northeast would be made up primarily of white-tailed deer, but would also include moose and smaller mammals, such as rabbits, raccoons and wild turkeys.

This is the six consecutive week local mountain lion sightings have been covered in this column, and there are many reports sitting on my desk that have not been shared. Colleague George Miller warned Tuesday night that I better back off this story before “the men in the black suits come knocking.”

I’ll take my chances. … Stay tuned.

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