Acton Cat

Yes, it’s old news but still worth sharing because of recurring themes from previous cougar sightings; and this one even includes a police department that believed its eyes, was convinced a big cat was lurking, one that presented potential danger.

The town was Acton, about a half-hour northwest of Boston, the date Nov. 8, 2004. You’ve got to hear this one. It’s a doozey.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on that fall date, the police received a call from a concerned resident who was hearing surreal noises in the woods behind his home in a residential neighborhood. The report claimed something was growling, something that didn’t sound inviting or common. So two police officers responded to the scene, turned their engines off, exited their vehicles and listened. It didn’t take long, perhaps two minutes, before they heard loud, threatening growls from the woodlot. Then they heard the leaves on the forest floor rustling, twigs snapping and — bingo! — a “mountain lion” popped out into the open, soon followed by a mature whitetail buck estimated at 200-plus pounds, large set of antlers pointed down menacingly toward the predator.

“Apparently, the buck and cat had a standoff in the woods,” said Acton Police Chief Frank Widmayer, “then the buck chased the cat out of the woods. My officers saw it clearly in the light from their headlights and a street lamp. It was only 25 or 30 yards away.”

The police report from both officers described the animal as a large tan cat, five to six feet long, up to two feet high at the shoulders. There is no mention of a long tail in either report, which may or may not be significant, but the chief does recall his officers telling him they saw the tail. It’s true that not all cougar sightings include descriptions of a long tail, but most do; it all depends on the angle of the sighting. But tail or no tail in the police report, both officers believed they had seen a cougar. In fact, so convinced were they that the department posted an illuminated, flashing sign to warn people of a potentially dangerous situation.

The officers reported their sighting on the radio to a state Environmental Police Officer, who advised them to leave the scene and he’d investigate in the morning. He did and turned up nothing. But the EPO wasn’t the only interested party who took it upon himself to “look around.” A local woodsman also took a walk, camera in hand, and came away with photos in living color of what appeared to be cat tracks in the mud a quarter-mile from the police sighting. Then, many subsequent calls about big-cat sightings came into the station, the first some 19 hours after the police sighting, when a woman saw what she described as a mountain lion behind a dumpster. Two days later, shortly after 10 p.m., another “mountain lion” was reported by a supervisor at the Hartz Corp. in Acton; the man also saw his cat behind dumpsters. Then two more reported sightings in four or five days, one just after 11 p.m., the other just after midnight; all nighttime sightings, which is not surprising because cougars have nocturnal tenancies.

Aware that there had been many cougar sightings in nearby Westford, that just a day or two before his officers had witnessed one with their own eyes, and that a friend in a coffee shop had flagged him down to tell him about the cougar that had crossed in front of his car just prior to the police sighting, Widmayer thought it was time to take action.

“I’m no expert on tracks but they didn’t look like dog tracks to me and I showed the pictures to people who said there were definitely cat tracks,” said Widmayer. “The guy who took the pictures also said they were cat tracks.”

Widmayer took the necessary measures to alert his townspeople of the potential danger and it didn’t take long before the story hit the Boston TV-newscasts — reporters, lights, cameras, microphones, the whole shebang, a wild scene; “mountain lion on the loose in Acton; be alert, protect you pets and livestock.”

Widmayer e-mailed the photos around and showed them to the investigating EPO, who viewed them with interest, then told the print media they were canine tracks, an assessment he curiously hadn’t shared with Widmayer.

“I was actually surprised when I read that,” Widmayer said, “because I didn’t remember him saying that to me.”

Hmmmm? Imagine that.

Cat tracks are wider and rounder than those of canines and don’t display claw marks because cats walk with their claws retracted. The EPO who viewed Widmayer’s photos based his “opinion” that they had been made by a coyote on one indentation in the mud that he identified as a claw mark. But careful observation reveals that the indentation could be unrelated to the paw print.

So, do you suppose there’s an edict from the highest level of authority to deny a potential re-emergence of Eastern cougars? Is the first responsibility of wildlife officials to squash such rumors, deny the possibility of mountain lions? Who knows? But don’t discount it. It may be real. No matter how credible the source, how convincing the evidence, the authorities do indeed refuse to admit there’s the slightest chance Eastern cougars are back. The official, often-repeated response is that “Eastern cougars have been extinct for 100 years.”

End of story.

Of course, that was the same “official response” wildlife officials routinely uttered three and more decades ago, when people started seeing Florida panthers in the Sunshine State. Today the “extinct” panthers are back, alive and well, reproducing in the dense Florida swamps. The obvious question, one New England officials must answer, is: How can they be certain Eastern cougars were ever extinct? Could there not have been one here and there in remote wilderness back when three quarters of New England was clear-cut? Could the big cats not be coming back now that the deep forests have returned throughout the Northeast?

Never say never — that’s my mantra — and needed support can come from the people who experienced the Florida panther phenomenon three and four decades ago.

“All I know is that two of my officers saw that cat with their own eyes from close range,” Widmayer said. “How can I question that?”

Perhaps he should ask the experts. They’ll have an answer for him. You know how it goes: Eastern cougars are extinct.

Sounds good … but certainly not undisputable.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top