Morning Sentinel
MOUNTAIN LION IN WINSLOW? MAYBE
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BY SCOTT MONROE
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 06/24/2009

WINSLOW -- A reported sighting of a mountain lion late Monday afternoon by a woman and her sons has caught the interest of state experts.

Informed of the Winslow sighting on Tuesday, Wally Jakubas, mammal-group leader for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the agency's point person on mountain lions, said there had been another possible mountain lion report last week in the northern Augusta area, in which a feces sample (also known as scat) was recovered and is being analyzed.

Although around 20 sightings are reported annually, there have been only two scientifically confirmed cases of mountain lions in Maine: The first was in 1938 near the Maine-Quebec border and the second was in 1995 in Cape Elizabeth.

Mountain lions are also known as cougars and pumas. State officials believe most mountain lion sightings, if they're legitimate, are of animals that have been captive and are released.

"I'm intrigued," Jakubas said. "We had this report of the scat (in Augusta). I think the important thing is these are unconfirmed reports and the general history of these things is, when you look into them, they don't pan out."

Even so, the Winslow sighting "is a very convincing story," he said, and a state biologist from the department's Sidney office is investigating.

The sighting occurred around 4:45 p.m. Lin Stout said she and her sons Cullen, 9, and Liam, 5, were at a swing set in their backyard off South Ridge Drive when they saw the long tail bobbing through ferns and brush. They live on a 5-acre property within a subdivision that is surrounded by woods.

The tan tail, standing about 3 feet high, had a 3-inch, dark brown tip, Stout said. It was about 20 feet away, she said. Cullen ran back to the house; Liam and his mother watched.

"My 5-year-old says, 'Mommy, a lion's tail!' I said, 'It's not like a lion you see at the zoo; it's a mountain lion,'" Stout said.

Stout said they were about 30 feet away from the house and back deck. They froze in place as the tail disappeared back into the brush, silently.

"We did not hear any snaps of twigs, no crunches of leaves; it was like it was a ghost," Stout said. "My son said it's a ghost cat."

Stout said she and her son began slowly walking back toward the house when the animal stepped out from the woods -- in full view -- less than 20 feet away from them. Stout said she recognized the animal as a mountain lion, describing it as perhaps weighing 130 pounds, with a large cat-like face, yellow eyes, "huge" paws, and that long tail they had seen in the brush.

Racing through Stout's mind was the thought of what she would do if the animal leaped at them. She decided to drop to the ground and cover her son, if it came to that.

But Stout said the mountain lion seemed uninterested in them and focused on a nearby marsh area. Stout said they began slowly backing up because the mountain lion seemed not to be interested in them.

"It didn't look menacing to us; it didn't growl or show its teeth," Stout said. "It was looking at the marsh. I didn't feel that afraid; I felt more calm."

Then, as Stout picked up her son, the 5-year-old screamed.

"I think he realized then this was a very large animal and it was wild," she said. "That startled the animal, but it did not ever come at us."

That's also when Stout finally saw what the animal had been fixated on: a black, domestic cat that had wandered into the marsh area. Liam, she said, screamed, "Run kitty, run!"

Stout said the mountain lion then took one giant leap back into the woods -- without making a sound. The entire encounter with the animal in full view lasted perhaps 30 seconds, Stout said.

After the encounter, Stout contacted Charles Theobald, animal control officer for the Winslow Police Department.

The animal fit the description of an eastern mountain lion, Theobald said. He suggested that the Stouts take extra precautions when going out in the area -- such as having the kids wear bells.

"It's wildlife; it's Maine," Theobald said. "You're going to come across wildlife."

Over the years, many people have mistaken mountain lions and their tracks for bobcats, coyotes, foxes, even house-cats, Jakubas said.

But there's no evidence of a sustained, wild population of mountain lions in Maine, he said.

The nearest such populations are in Iowa and Michigan -- it's debated whether they are wild in Quebec -- and so legitimate sightings of mountain lions likely involve animals that have been released into the wild, he said.

Scott Monroe -- 861-9253

smonroe@centralmaine.com

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