An instinct coiled way down in the human brain knows the difference between a bobcat and a mountain lion.
A bobcat gives you a warm, that-kind-of-looks-like-my-cat-but-slightly-bigger feeling.
Then there is Rocky. On a recent stifling morning in Adams County, the 290-pound mountain lion with perfect bone structure is ignoring the raw chicken breast and pork chops a handler tossed into his pen. He’s sitting in a plastic doghouse, paws crossed, amber eyes locked on the two men ticking him off by their mere presence out beyond the fence.
It’s 90-something degrees, but Rocky’s stare feels like ice down your pants.
“He doesn’t like men too much,” said Suzanne Murray, owner of East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue in this south-central Pennsylvania town.
A placard affixed to the fence outside Rocky’s pen states that “cougars are solitary creatures and rarely seen by humans.” But more and more people in Pennsylvania, from the Alleghenies to the Poconos to rolling farmlands in York County, claim they are seeing the big cats here, even though the state’s “last” native lion, also known as a cougar or puma, was shot and killed in Berks County in 1871 and the feds have declared the Eastern subspecies extinct.
None of these sightings has been authenticated, and many of them, including a recent, alleged mountain lion picked up on a surveillance camera in Lackawanna County, turned out to be bobcats. There are approximately 4,000 of those 10- to 40-pound cats in the state.
Still, people say they know what they saw out there.
“When I started telling people, most of them didn’t believe me, but I will never forget that huge face staring right at me,” said a Montgomery County woman who says she saw a lion last summer in Limerick Township while walking her dog.
The woman, a 66-year-old grandmother, asked not to be identified because she’s a senior and didn’t want people “bothering” her about it.
In August, Amy Walters said her 12-year-old son was spooked by a mountain lion in Forest County in northwest Pennsylvania while riding his dirt bike.
“If my son would have been on a pedal bike, without a helmet on, that thing would have nailed him,” said Walters, 44.
Some have even reported seeing a “black panther,” a near-impossibility because of the rarity of that recessive gene. But Dave “Gadget” Jones, a retired wildlife conservation officer from Lackawanna County, claims he’s seen a white bigfoot and a UFO in Pennsylvania, so who knows? Jones has never seen a mountain lion, but he thinks they’re prowling around.
“The day will come,” he said, “when someone will pull the trigger on a mountain lion.”
In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the Eastern subspecies of the mountain lion extinct, which would seem to bolster the skeptics. But many others believe wild mountain lions are traveling from Western states, where as many as 30,000 could exist, and across the Midwest to Pennsylvania seeking new territory.
There is also a small population of cougars in Florida.
The claim of mountain lions on the move was bolstered in 2009 when one was killed by a car in Greenwich, Conn. Biologists traced it back to the Black Hills of South Dakota, from where it ventured nearly 2,000 miles looking for a new mate.
“While it seems unlikely, it’s not impossible that these animals are showing up in PA,” said David Foster, a biology professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg.
An escapee is also possible. Mountain lions live in rescue centers like Murray’s, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission said a dozen or so people are permitted to possess them. Paws ’N’ Claws Animal Park in the Poconos has two.
“We’ve been here 45 years and I’ve probably been told by people at least 100 times that they’ve seen a cougar or mountain lion,” said owner Vince Hall. “I kind of doubt they saw a cougar, but I’m not God.”
Travis Lau, a spokesperson for the Game Commission, said the state has a “never say never” approach when it comes to mountain lions and acknowledges that Western cats could be moving east.
“With all of that said, though, there’s a general lack of evidence of mountain lions in Pennsylvania. That’s significant because, in states where mountain lions live, they’re often struck by vehicles or otherwise found dead. Here, they’ve not been,” Lau said in an e-mail. “Likewise, I’m not aware of any escapes from captive facilities in my time here. And when our officers go out to investigate reports of mountain lions, or when our staff reviews photos that are sent to us, often we’re able to verify some other animal mistakenly was reported as a mountain lion.”
Some may also be kept illicitly as pets, which would quickly become a problem as the cat matures. In the wild, adult mountain lions can weigh anywhere from 65 to 220 pounds.
Murray said Rocky was emaciated and chained when she found him at a private zoo. She also houses a bobcat named Nia she took in from a couple who couldn’t handle her. Like Rocky, Nia is declawed.
Mountain lions have killed humans in the wild, though sightings and encounters are rare even in the American West and Canada. Murray has cared for four mountain lions since she took over the rescue in 1998. One came to her as the result of an owner’s divorce. She feeds and cares for them with donations and grants.
“They are very strong animals,” she said. “People think they can get them declawed and that they’re safe, but they still have teeth.”
Mountain lions’ canines are 3 to 4 inches long.
Murray also has a cross-eyed white tiger named Keisha, who crushed chicken bones with ease but delicately stepped into a metal pool to cool off. Angel, her African lioness who snarls at strangers, is a big girl.
“I’m proud to know her,” Murray said of the tiger, “but I wish I didn’t.”
Foster, the Messiah College professor, said he has investigated about 15 reported mountain lion sightings since late May, and believed “three or four are pretty likely a mountain lion.” They include a reported attack on horses at a farm near Dillsburg, York County, that Foster thinks may be legitimate.
“Hunters are always saying they see mountain lions, and the Game Commission always says there aren’t any,” said Robert Hale, owner of Buffalo Gap Outfitters in Dillsburg. “I know they’re native to this area. You know, the Penn State Nittany Lions.”
On some investigations, Foster has teamed up with Stacey Griffiths, who started the Central PA Mountain Lion Sightings page earlier this year. Over 1,100 people follow her page.
A recent alleged sighting in South Abington Township, Lackawanna County, had Facebook groups abuzz. Images from a homeowner’s surveillance camera show a tan cat with a long body, beyond a chain-link fence. It has the color of a mountain lion, but the long tail appears to be missing.
A second image of the same cat, in a different light, reveals the trademark spots of a bobcat. In 2016, a trail cam photo in South Jersey was later determined to show a house cat.
Foster said mountain lions and bobcats could not breed. The bobcat wouldn’t survive.
While it would seem impossible to confuse the two after seeing them in person, Foster said many of the sightings are in the dark, from roadways and trail cams, with bodies half-concealed.
“It’s fall bow-hunting season soon,” he said. “We should be getting more pictures. It will happen eventually. No one needs to panic.”