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Cougar warning brings out jokesters

WASHINGTON - She was sure of what she saw out her bedroom window. The tan fur. The silent, stealthy movement. And then there was the unmistakable roar.

A mountain lion was in Linda Miley’s back yard. She bounded to the phone and called the police. Shortly after she called about 8:30 Wednesday evening, the police were on the scene, and the D.C. Office of Neighborhood Engagement tweeted out the alert:

“DANGER-PUBLIC SAFETY ALERT MOUNTAIN LION SPOTTED 3600 BLOCK OF HIGHWOOD DR SE.”

A day later, after the animal control officers scoured her property twice without finding a trace - and after the sighting became fodder on Twitter - she was still shaken.

“It was really scary,” Miley said in an interview Thursday evening. “I got the shock of my life.”

Her neighbors were more skeptical, as were some experts.

“I’m 99 percent sure it’s not real,” said Ken Miller, co-founder of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit group devoted to studying cougar habitat.

Scott Giacoppo, vice president of external affairs for the Humane Society, which serves as the District of Columbia’s animal control agency, said that his workers have investigated calls about mountain lion sightings from two other locations in Washington since Wednesday evening. And he wasn’t ruling anything out.

“I am not going to say it’s not a mountain lion,” Giacoppo said.

Still, his crews could find no signs of a mountain lion. No tracks. No droppings. No carcasses of small animals recently consumed. Giacoppo said that over the previous three years - “every October” - his office has looked into sightings of mountain lions in the District. Giacoppo suspects that what people are really seeing are deer or possibly coyotes.

But Miley, who is retired and did not want her age published, knows what a coyote looks like - she’s seen them in her back yard, which backs up to a wooded area. This was no coyote.

“They didn’t believe me when I told them I saw coyotes back here - a pack of coyotes,” she said. “And of course when people began to see them, then they believed. But sometimes you have to take people’s word.”

Her word is all the proof she can offer about the mountain lion. “I’m just sorry that I was so upset that I didn’t think to grab my camera and get a picture so that there would be no doubt in people’s minds.”

As soon as the all-caps tweet went out, humor and doubt spread.

“Back in DC. Place is falling apart,” tweeted Pablo Maurer, a Washington-based soccer journalist.

“Does he have a stun gun too?” asked another Twitter writer, an apparent reference to a series of stun-gun robberies inflicting the District of Columbia.

“Government shutdown?” another asked rhetorically, and taking on the tone of the big cat. “Lemme stroll thru. Ain’t nobody on the streets to notice me.”

Is it possible that mountain lions - also known as cougars - could roam around the East Coast? The Mid-Atlantic? The densely populated capital of the free world?

Cougar populations are big out west but are thought to halt at the Badlands of North Dakota, the Black Hills of South Dakota and parts of Nebraska, said Chuck Anderson, director of the Cougar Network, who also heads up mammal research at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency.

But here’s what can happen. Young males will wander. And when they get far enough afield, they keep wandering, looking for female cougars. If they’re pointed east, they will keep going. And that’s what lots of smart mountain lion people think happened to a mountain lion who departed South Dakota and made his way to Milford, Conn., where he was struck and killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway. Scientists tracked his journey from DNA the cat left in his droppings, blood and hair, according to the researchers.

“Anything is possible, let me put it that way,” said Anderson, who then skeptically put it this way: “But people see what they want to see. A lot of what they see turn out to be house cats or dogs.”

On Wednesday, Giacoppo said, District of Columbia animal control officers went to the location, as well as a second reported mountain lion sighting about five miles away - and on the other side of the Anacostia River.

Giacoppo returned to the Northeast Washington site on Thursday. He didn’t speak to the person who reported the sighting but spoke to a man in the area, who said, “The only way I can describe it was a giant rabbit with short ears.”

Also on Thursday, animal control officers checked out a third location of a reported mountain lion sighting - this one back in Southeast, near Highwood Drive, Giacoppo said. No evidence of cougars there, either, he added.

He said his eight animal control officers are eager and willing to investigate sightings where people really think they see a mountain lion. But he doesn’t want residents to talk themselves into it: “We don’t want people to see a deer, but then say to themselves: ’That might be that mountain lion. I better call.’ ”

On Thursday night, Miley was ready. She cleaned her camera lenses so that this time she’d have evidence. “I’m going to keep looking,” she said. “I’ll sit by the window tonight.”

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