The 140-pound mountain lion who wandered all the way from South Dakota to die on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford 12 months ago was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon in Connecticut, if you believe the wildlife experts.
Or it was finally proof that the big cats have been around for years, if you prefer to trust the cougar conspiracy theorists. They accuse state and federal officials of orchestrating a massive coverup of the existence of New England mountain lions.
"It's not just Connecticut," insists Bo Ottmann, founder of the nonprofit group Connecticut Mountain Lion/Cougars of the Valley. "Rhode Island's loaded [with mountain lions], Massachusetts is loaded."
Ottmann is absolutely convinced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and virtually all the states in the Northeast are involved in what he calls "a huge coverup... I don't know why they're lying to people," he says.
And there's Michael Olzacki, East Haddam's animal control officer. He insists he saw a mountain lion in April. It happened, he says, near the intersection of Creek Row and Route 149. "At one point... he was about 25 feet away – walked right past my van," Olzacki remembers.
According to Olzacki, he's been told that if state officials "acknowledge the existence of mountain lions, they'd have to do a study, and there's no money to do a study." Olzacki says he routinely receives calls from people reporting mountain lion sightings in his area.
There are all kinds of theories floating around out there, including rumors that state officials themselves introduced mountain lions into Connecticut and New England to help control the region's deer population – something those officials deny as absurd.
For decades, state and federal officials insisted that what people were reporting as mountain lions were bobcats or dogs or coyotes or perhaps some escaped or released cougar someone had been keeping illegally as a pet. There were no truly wild mountain lions in the Northeast, they said – right up until last June.
Ottmann's website lists dozens of alleged sightings in the past year alone, in places as varied as Bloomfield, Willington, Middletown, and Southington.
None of which have made much of an impression on officials like Rick Jacobson, director of wildlife for Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). "I don't know what he saw," Jacobson says of Olzacki's East Haddam incident. "We have no physical evidence to support his sighting."
"In every single instance when we've been able to determine what the animal was [from a reported sighting], with the exception of that one last summer, it was something other than a mountain lion," Jacobson explains.
Ah yes, that one last summer that was hit by an SUV and provided concrete evidence that at least one wild mountain lion was wandering through Connecticut.
He's still around, actually, or at least some of his body parts are. Jacobson says portions of the big cat's body are still being preserved at the state's Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area facility where the necropsy was done.
He was known by Wisconsin experts as the "St. Croix cougar."
DNA tests determined that this extraordinary member of the species puma concolor was born in the Black Hills of South Dakota. According to scat (the professional term for mountain lion poop) and hair samples, this dude's travels in 2009 and 2010 took him up to Minnesota and Wisconsin (where he picked up his St. Croix moniker).
He was also believed to be the cougar caught on vide o on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. From there, experts believe, he went north, around the Great Lakes through Ontario, crossed the St. Lawrence River in some fashion, either by swimming or by bridge, and re-entered the U.S. in northern New York and came down past Lake George into the Hudson River Valley.
This bad boy gave folks in Connecticut's Greenwich quite a shock when he was spotted and photographed at the Brunswick School. He'd traveled something like 1,500 miles to get there.
A few days later, on June 11, 2011, the St. Croix cougar met his end in Milford, and Connecticut wildlife officials could no longer say there were no mountain lions here.
Just three months before that fatal encounter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast Regional Office issued a report on a five-year study that concluded that "the eastern cougar is extinct" and recommended it be removed from the endangered species list.
"The nearest reproducing population to us is in the Florida Everglades," says Jacobson, "and the next closest is in the Black Hills of South Dakota." He adds that the South Dakota cougars are "spreading out from that concentration area" into places like Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, but only in tiny numbers.
Massachusetts officials take the same line as their Connecticut counterparts.
"In the past 30 years, we've had one confirmed pile of [mountain lion] scat," says Marion Larson, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. That was discovered in 1997 near Quabbin Reservoir, but no other trace was found.
She explains that, when Massachusetts experts are able to determine what animal people are reporting as a mountain lion, it turns out to be "a mangy old coyote" or a bobcat or even a house cat.
Both Larson and Jacobson believe that the single greatest reason to believe there aren't more mountain lions in New England is the lack of bodies on the roads.
"The one mountain lion we had (the St. Croix cougar) wasn't here more than a couple of weeks and it ended up being road kill," says Jacobson. "If we had mountain lions here, more would be showing up as road kill." He points out that Connecticut, with a population of 500 or more black bears, sees at least 25 road accidents a year involving bears.
Larson notes that Florida's population of Everglades panthers, as mountain lions are called down there, routinely suffers road kills in areas with far fewer roads than Connecticut or Massachusetts.
(Ottmann insists there have been lots more Connecticut lion road kills, but that they've been covered up by "DEEP thugs.")
As for a cover up, Jacobson and Larson flatly deny any conspiracy to keep the public from knowing there are lions roaming our countryside. "Why should we cover it up?" Larson asks. "Of course not — we investigate every credible report."
But that's exactly what you'd expect them to say, if you're convinced Connecticut's DEEP and environmental officials in other states are hiding the truth.
"The DEEP is so fucked up," Ottmann growls. "They piss me off."