Connecticut woman reports mountain lion near home, but officials skeptical

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A Connecticut woman reportedly believes she spotted a mountain lion outside her rural home earlier this month, but wildlife officials insist the largest of North American wildcats has not been native to the state for more than 100 years.

Caitlin Handley, a 23-year-old nurse, told The Hartford Courant she saw a powerful, tawny-colored cat outside her Skeet Club Road home in Durham, near Lyman Orchards and the Powder Ridge Ski area, on March 4.

"I'm not an expert, but it just seemed too big to be a bobcat," Handley told the newspaper. "Although you can't see it in the picture, it had a long tail and it was very muscular."

Handley, who took a picture of the animal with her iPhone, later posted the snapshot on a local website. And while many commenters said they thought the animal was most likely a bobcat, Durham's Interim Animal Control Officer John Miller isn’t so sure.

Miller said other reported mountain lion sightings have occurred in Durham in recent years, including one in November. Connecticut's abundant deer population could be bringing the big cats back and the desolate, wooded near Handley’s home are the animal’s preferred habitat.

The mountain lion, also known as the cougar, puma, panther or catamount, is the largest of North American wildcats and pursues a wide variety of prey, including deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep. In the Midwest, the animal’s resurgence is heralded as a wildlife success story. In New England, sightings have seemingly been on the rise, but reports are largely unconfirmed.

Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, however, maintains there’s no native mountain lion population in the state. A cougar killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford in 2011 had wandered 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota, officials told the newspaper.

"That was an anomaly," said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain.

Mountain lion sightings reported to the department are often incorrect, Schain said, typically mistaken for bobcats or large dogs.

The Associated Press reported in February that a cougar had been spotted in Winchester, Mass., just north of Boston. Massachusetts Environmental Police said paw prints at the scene "strongly resembled those of a mountain lion,” according to The Courant.

Bo Ottmann, founder of Cougars of the Valley, which seeks to raise awareness about Connecticut mountain lions, said state sightings have increased significantly in the past 10 years.

"You can debate whether they're eastern or western cougars all you want," Ottmann told the newspaper. "The fact is they're here. I think [cougars] are coming down from Canada. The deer population here is out of control, and that's their principal food source."