When a Winchester resident called police to report seeing a mountain lion while he was walking his dog Feb. 27, experts at the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries were quick to dismiss the animal as a coyote or a dog. But when those experts had the same response to another sighting nine days later, Winchester Police Chief Ken Albertelli was unconvinced.
“I knew [MassWildlife] would tell me it was a large dog, and I’m not an expert, so I sent it to a team of cougar specialists,” Albertelli said. “I don’t want to be known as the nutty lion guy, but the witnesses we interviewed were all credible.”
Albertelli sent pictures from the second sighting on March 8 to Cougars of the Valley, a Connecticut-based organization that researches mountain lions and cougars. Their experts, and six other research teams in places ranging from California to West Virginia, returned their verdicts.
“We are all in agreement that these were large feline tracks, consistent with a mountain lion,” said Ray Weber, an expert at Cougars of the Valley. “We’re not sure how [MassWildlife] determined that it was a canine, but there are specific things you’ll see in a good dog track that just weren’t there in these prints.”
Albertelli took that information to the public, posting a second warning on the police department’s website urging residents to be aware of mountain lions in the area. The warning also linked to a list of protective measures to be taken should a resident encounter one of the cats.
In response, MassWildlife has reaffirmed their original findings.
“We stand by our contention that this is absolutely not a mountain lion,” Amy Mahler, a MassWildlife spokeswoman, said today in a statement. “We have sent the photo to several out-of-state experts, including a western mountain lion biologist, and all the feedback we have received is supportive of our original interpretation that these tracks were made by a coyote or a dog.”
Despite the disagreement, and the fact that a mountain lion sighting hasn’t been confirmed in Massachusetts since 1858, Albertelli has chosen to stick by his residents.
“It’s [MassWildlife’s] opinion, and they’re entitled to it, but I’m more concerned about our residents and letting them know to be aware for themselves and for their pets,” Albertelli said.
The spate of sightings actually began in June of last year, when a woman told police she had seen a large cat climbing backward out of a tree in her backyard. “It came down onto the ground and started walking off, but she got a good look at its color and size, and it had the face of a lion,” Albertelli said.
The animal skulked into the wooded area, but not before the city’s animal control officer caught a glimpse of its back and tail, Albertelli said.
Another sighting was not reported again until Feb. 27, when a man walking his dog near the Pepper Hill and Dunster Lane area said he saw a mountain lion wandering between the residential area and the woods, about 50 yards away from him.
Police officers responded to the area and located the animal’s prints, but the recently frozen snow had made the prints too light to determine what kind of animal they came from, Albertelli said.
MassWildlife weighed in, saying that the spacing of the toes in the prints suggested the animal was a member of the Canidae family, most likely a coyote or a dog.
But Albertelli posted his first warning on the police department’s website — just to be safe, he said.
“The experts wouldn’t commit, but I decided to just let the residents know just so they could be aware” he said.
Then, 12 days later, came a third sighting.
A woman driving on Mystic Valley Parkway on March 8 reported witnessing a mountain lion walk into the street in front of her and into the woods through another residential area. Unsure of what she had seen, she went home and did an Internet search. She came to police with a picture of a mountain lion printed out.
Albertelli and several other officers rushed to the area where it had been sighted.
“By that time, we had a little bit of a melt in the snow, so the print we found from that sighting was very clear,” Albertelli said.
“There’s a 99 percent chance they won’t be a threat, but you can’t predict what they’ll do if they’re startled,” he said.