DURHAM – Caitlin Handley thinks she saw a mountain lion – an animal state wildlife officials insist has been extinct in Connecticut for more than 100 years.
Handley, a 23-year-old nurse, lives on Skeet Club Road, a wooded rural stretch near Lyman Orchards and the Powder Ridge Ski area.
Through her sliding glass door, Handley saw in the snow, a large, powerful tawny-coloured cat last Tuesday morning. “I’m not an expert, but it just seemed too big to be a bobcat,” said Handley, who took a picture of the animal with her iPhone. “Although you can’t see it in the picture, it had a long tail and it was very muscular.”
When Handley posted her picture of the animal on a local website last week, many commented that it was most likely a bobcat.
“Almost certainly a bobcat,” one poster wrote.
But Durham’s Interim Animal Control Officer John Miller is not so sure. He said there have been other reported mountain lion sightings in Durham over the years – including one in November.
“I had a call from a woman on James Road who said she saw a mountain lion in her backyard,” said Miller.
Miller said the state’s abundant deer population could be bringing the big cats back. Also, the wooded escarpments near Handley’s sighting are a mountain lion’s preferred habit. “It’s very desolate up there,” Miller said.
Miller said his wife Katherine believes she saw a mountain lion several years ago while horseback riding in the wooded Higganum Road area, a mile east of Route 17. “She said it was a big cat with a long tail, which couldn’t have been a bobcat,” Miller said.
Lakota Indians called the mountain lion “igmu tanka,” meaning “the great cat.” This largest of North America wildcats is also known as the cougar, puma, panther, and catamount.
In the Midwest, the cougar’s resurgence is being heralded as a wildlife success story. Sightings in New England seemed to be on the rise, although the reports are largely unconfirmed.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has maintained that there is no native mountain lion population in the state, and that the cougar killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford in 2011 had wandered 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota. A call to the DEEP Tuesday seeking comment on Handley’s sighting was not returned.
In February, The Associated Press reported that a cougar had been spotted in Winchester, Mass., just north of Boston, and that Massachusetts Environmental Police, arriving at the seen saw paw prints that “strongly resembled those of a mountain lion.”
By ERIK HESSELBERG Special to The Courant