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Mainers have been arguing for decades about mountain lions — also called cougars, pumas and catamounts — with some saying they don’t live here, and others saying they’ve seen them.
Back in 2011, a cougar roamed all the way from South Dakota to Connecticut — DNA in its scat was used to identify it as the same cat — before it died after being hit by a car. That incident prompted many to reevaluate their thoughts on mountain lions in Maine. If the cats could get as far as southern New England, why not assume they could make it all the way to the Pine Tree State?
Joanie Rhoda, who lives in the Knox County town of Washington, is among those who now think they’ve spotted a cougar right here in Maine.
Rhoda said that on Dec. 31, she was walking on a snow-covered dirt road with her border collie, Denali. A truck pulled up alongside her, and she stopped to chat with the neighbor driving it.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an animal enter the road from the woods about 100 feet from us. Before I turned my head to look at it, I thought to myself that it was probably a deer, but realized when I looked at it full-on that it was a large cat,” Rhoda said. “It was a medium brown color with a long body and a long tail and a small head with small roundish ears and short hair. It was larger than a coyote.”
When the cat turned its head in her direction, Rhoda gasped, and the neighbor looked in the rearview mirror to try to see what she was looking at.
“I turned to him and said, ‘I think that’s a bobcat!’ I actually did not know what a bobcat looks like, but couldn’t think of anything else it would have been. All I knew was that it was definitely some kind of large cat,” she said.
When Rhoda got home she told her daughter, BDN Maine Focus editor Erin Rhoda, about the incident, and Erin looked up images of bobcats. They didn’t match the cat Joanie Rhoda had seen.
“So what was it? She showed me images of lynx and I ruled that out as well. When she brought up images of mountain lions, I knew immediately that I had seen a mountain lion,” Joanie Rhoda said. “It was exciting but scary at the same time. Since then I’ve read some information about them online and though human attacks are rare, they have happened, mostly in Colorado or the Rockies.”
Biologists have said that they doubt that breeding populations of the big cats live here in Maine, but accept that formerly captive mountain lions and roaming wild cougars may pass through from time to time.
Many Mainers say they trust their own eyes, and know that cougars walk our woods.
In fact, Joanie Rhoda is not the only person in midcoast Maine to have presented some pretty convincing evidence of their existence. Back in 2014, Edwin Ecker Jr. of North Waldoboro shared trail camera photos that he said showed a mountain lion in the woods behind his house.
That incident took place about three miles — easy walking distance for a roaming cougar — from the spot Joanie Rhoda saw the big cat.
In 2017, a hunter in Levant said she saw a mountain lion, then shot a deer that the mountain lion had mauled. She provided photos that clearly showed the deer had been attacked by some sort of critter.
And there are others who have provided photographic “evidence” of mountain lions that didn’t actually pan out. Biologists have determined that sightings are often a case of mistaken identity, and some of those photos actually show bears, bobcats and house cats.
Joanie and Erin Rhoda went back to the spot later and found the trail the animal used, and followed its tracks for a short distance. Still, they didn’t end up with concrete proof that the animal was a cougar.
“The tracks were not clear enough to make a positive identification, unfortunately,” Joanie Rhoda said.
That may be true. But she’s certainly got a story that she’ll be able to tell for years to come.