On The Trail: Denial games
This photo taken by Winchester Police on Feb. 27 — following a backyard, close-encounter sighting by an elderly woman, was identified by seven national experts as a cougar track, an identification MassWildlife officials were unwilling to confirm. The Winchester Police chief and the law-enforcement officials responding to the scene that day beg to differ.
Winchester Police photo
This is another shot of the same track left in the snow near where a Winchester woman, moments earlier, had a close encounter with a backyard cougar on Feb. 27. Experts who viewed the track said it was consisten with cougars, and the law-enforcement officers who responded to the scene were in full agreement. MassWildlife officials, on the other hand, ruled that the track had been left by a dog or coyote.
Winchester Police photo
I’m not certain whether the short introductory note topping an email sent my way this week was fueled by exuberance, defiance or relief. Then again, does it really matter? Let’s just call enthusiastic cougar-researcher Ray Weber triumphant indeed.
“Well,” he wrote in a delayed, victorious response to a five-month-old email I had sent him regarding inconclusive photos of a backyard cougar, “now we have it!”
Have what? Easy. My Oct. 3 demand for slam-dunk photos before I’d display them on the public square. I guess I’ve gotten fussy over many years of chronicling cougar sightings, especially local ones. Plus, I’ve formed an opinion, seen it confirmed on the most unlikely of highways, and moved on to new horizons.
Attached to Weber’s message, which included what now seems like an ancient early-October string of emails between us, were three Winchester Police Department photos in vivid, living color. The snapshots display a crisp, clear animal track in the snow — an imprint believed by everyone who studied it to be that of a cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther or whatever you choose to call the fabled, tawny, mysterious North American predator with a long, black-tipped tail and a spooky snarl. Well, that is everyone except the bureaucratic spin doctors of wildlife science, those card-carrying, gilt-plaqued experts in their field who are paid by Massachusetts taxpayers to serve as final arbiters in such weighty matters. Their ruling was quite predictable and, even among public servants employed on the police force, annoying ... if not outright insulting. Yes, the official MassWildlife assessment was that the tracks had been left by “a member of the Canidae family,” which, in laymen’s terms, means dog or coyote.
Weber was dismayed by what he perceived to be bold, intentional misinformation at best, maybe even straight-out institutional dishonesty. He just couldn’t contain his disgust, personally inquiring of the official who made the ruling, “And what type of dog, may I ask, would leave such a track?”
The wildlife biologist, a big dog in the MassWildlife hierarchy, paused before responding, “Maybe a sheep dog?”
This mandated denial of any cougar possibility came on the heels of a quite different conclusion from no less than seven nationwide cougar experts who had viewed the photos and agreed with on-site police and game wardens alike that the tracks were consistent with those of mountain lions.
Oh well, what else is new in the world of New England cougar sightings? Not much, I guess. Truthfully, it was long ago apparent to me, having followed these sightings for decades, that wildlife officials will never admit any cougar sighting is credible unless a dead one they can’t wiggle free of is found on the side of the road. To refresh your memory, that is precisely what, to their shrieking, gasping horror, occurred in the spring of 2011 on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn., a southern Connecticut hamlet within a faint and fetid whiff of the Big Apple, where Pinstripes and corruption reign supreme. Even more disturbing to “the fellas” back then was the fact that this road-kill — a South Dakota “disperser” from the Black Hills — had met its fate within a month or so of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s well-publicized reclassification of Eastern Cougars from endangered to “extinct.” Of course, they knew then that only the most astute observers of the nightly newscasts or even news editors themselves would understand a tidy little inconsistency with their announced reclassification: that is that all North American cougars living north, south, east and west belong to the same species, one that was long ago extirpated from the East but has for decades been finding its way back home from the Wild West, with viable reproductive populations already established in Great Lakes country, if in fact they ever left that wet and wild region. From here to there through the Adirondack and Green Mountain ranges is by no means a difficult journey for such a noble and elusive beast, no matter what the biologists try to tell you. It’s funny. The Indians knew cougars were here, held them sacred and wore their teeth and claws as jewelry and took them to their graves, a sign of agility, power, forest prowess and ferocity. Now the pro-growth Chamber of Commerce types among us would have you believe both are things of the past.
I must confess that I knew better than to immediately jump on this Middlesex County cougar tale, choosing instead to sit back and watch it “develop.” I learned of the story I suspected was due for radical institutional revision the day it made headlines following a credible Feb. 27 sighting in Winchester, located just northwest of Boston, bordered by Lexington west, Melrose east and Woburn north. My informant was a retired state cop, who emailed me a link to the town police report with a quick introductory note that read, “Check out the police website. There is an article, dated today, about a sighting. The EPO’s responded and said the tracks ‘strongly resembled that of a mountain lion.’”
According to Weber, a Cougars of the Valley researcher who’s been tracking sightings in the Pioneer Valley, its hills and beyond for four hectic years — and who has spoken at length with police, game wardens and eye witnesses familiar with the case — perplexed Winchester Police Chief Ken Albertelli claims his department had handled some 30 cougar reports in a month before the spit hit the fan. Then, finally, the case blossomed when an elderly woman called the dispatcher to report a backyard confrontation between her and the big cat. According to Weber, the woman walked outside to see the cat descending a backyard tree tail-first to the ground, where it turned to look her square in the face from 50 feet away before running off into the woods. In awe of what she had seen with her own eyes, the woman went immediately inside to phone police, panting, “Do lions live in Massachusetts?”
Police responded quickly to the scene and had no trouble following the cat’s fresh tracks in the snow, which they photographed for evidence. Many other tracks made by dogs and deer were scattered about the area, making it easy to differentiate between them and what they and game wardens suspected were cat tracks left by our continent’s largest wild feline.
“It was a big animal,” marvelled Weber, who also traveled to the scene and estimated the weight at 120 pounds. “The cops’ boot prints hardly left a mark on the snow next, and the cops were big men.”
Weber described the tracks as nearly four inches long, way too big for bobcat tracks, which are rarely two inches in length.
Thus, Weber said, “Police are not buying the MassWildlife evaluation;” and, secretly, neither are the investigating game wardens who, rather than challenge their colleagues, have hit the mute button like good public servants should.
Not surprisingly, since the day of the close encounter with the stunned lady, the previously ubiquitous Winchester cat has vanished like a woodland ghost, likely soon to reappear in a woodlot, pasture or thorny swamp near you. And when it finally does resurface someplace, unless it’s a bloody roadside mess, the fellas will surely deny its existence.
Weber called the tracks, “definitely the best thus far discovered in Massachusetts.” But what does that mean when the official press-release finding states “not good enough,” by now a transparent denial that has become irrelevant, a joke.
I really do believe that even the spokespeople issuing official denials these days know they’re — ummm? — not true.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: email@example.com.