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Paws: Mountain lion roaming East Haddam?

East Haddam - Town Animal Control Officer Michael Olzacki says he knows what he saw Tuesday morning: a mountain lion crossing the road near the intersection of Route 148 and Creek Row Road.

"It was the most beautiful animal I've seen in a long time," Olzacki said Thursday. "I've been hunting all my life. Bobcats I've seen plenty of times. This wasn't a bobcat."

He called the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to report the sighting, which sent one of its environmental conservation officers to the area to look for evidence of the animal. According to DEEP, there is no resident population of mountain lions in the state. Connecticut's last native mountain lion died around 1900, said Dwayne Gardner, DEEP spokesman.

Last spring, however, mountain lion sightings were reported in Greenwich, and in June, a mountain lion was struck and killed by an SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford. DEEP concluded after testing that the animal had traveled into the state from South Dakota.

Gardner said paw prints found in the area where Olzacki reported seeing the mountain lion were incomplete. Olzacki also was not able to provide a photograph.

Scat, complete paw prints or a photograph would be needed to positively identify the animal Olzacki saw, Gardner said.

"But we didn't dismiss the report," he said.

Olzacki said the area where he spotted the animal is near open land around power lines and forests. Throughout town, there are hundreds of acres of undeveloped land preserved by the East Haddam Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and the state, in Devil's Hopyard and Gillette Castle state parks. That and an ample deer population would make the town a welcoming habitat for mountain lions, Olzacki said.

He said he knew the animal he saw was a mountain lion from its light brown color, long, black-tipped tail, large shoulders and distinctive walk. Mountain lions can weight 100 to 140 pounds, and be 6 to 8 feet in length.

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Eastern mountain lion, also called a cougar or puma, to be extinct. There is a population of mountain lions in western parts of the country.

First Selectman Mark Walter said he wasn't surprised to hear the report, despite the official state position that there are no resident mountain lions in Connecticut.

"They're out there," he said, noting that he has heard several unconfirmed reports of sightings over the years. "Just like any predator, people should treat them with respect."

He advised residents not to go into the woods alone or, if they do, to carry pepper spray. If they do spot a mountain lion, "leave it alone."

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "People just need to educate themselves."

The biggest threat from a mountain lion, he said, would be to farm animals such as chickens, lambs, calves and goats. He advised livestock owners to keep their animals locked up at night.

In neighboring Lyme, which is also heavily forested, First Selectman Ralph Eno said Thursday he wouldn't be surprised if the furtive, reclusive animals were living in Connecticut.

"But if they are here, there can't be a lot of them," he said, adding that people should realize that these are large animals that can be aggressive. "It's just one more thing for people to be aware of in the woods. My suggestion is for people to be prepared to deal with these encounters."

j.benson@theday.com

What you should do

If you believe you have seen a mountain lion call the local animal control officer and DEEP's 24-hour hotline at (860) 424-3333.

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