After a mountain lion was found dead near Greenwich last week, residents of the wealthy New York City suburb have been seeing cougars everywhere: perched on a wall at a golf course, traipsing down a scenic parkway, being chased by a pair of dogs.
Officials say the dead mountain lion likely escaped from captivity and found no evidence of other lions stalking Connecticut. That hasn't stopped the buzz from permeating the essence of an idyllic suburb normally accustomed to worrying about geese droppings, the future of a makeshift Wiffle ball stadium and a proposed ban on leaf blowers.
"Just five minutes ago somebody from Old Bedford Road said they saw it," said William Strain, who owns a store in the backcountry of Greenwich, where the lion was spotted.
But experts say such sightings are notoriously unreliable, with people often confusing bobcats, coyotes, dogs and other animals for lions, especially amid the recent hullabaloo.
"It's a big exotic wild animal that's capable of killing a human being," said Mark Dowling, a director with the Cougar Network. "I just think people are excited about something big, dangerous and exotic. I think people want to be able to say they've seen something exciting, extraordinary."
He acknowledged, though, that it's possible more than one cougar got loose.
State officials believe a mountain lion killed June 11 on a highway in Milford was the same one spotted earlier more than 30 miles away in Greenwich. But reports of more sightings persist.
A woman walking her dog Wednesday reported seeing two "hounds" chase a big cat, and a golf course employee said he saw a mountain lion on a stone wall. Police in nearby Fairfield received two sightings of a mountain lion. A big cat was spotted in northwest Greenwich a day after the lion was killed in Milford and another motorist reported seeing one on the Merritt Parkway.
The sightings prompted the closing of trails at the Audubon Center in Greenwich.
Rashe Campbell, manager of the Pet Pantry store in Greenwich, said a few customers with large Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs have come in to buy brightly colored collars in hopes of sparing them from anyone taking up arms against a mountain lion.
Dick Hoyt, who owns an outdoor trading shop in Greenwich, welcomed the animal.
"It's pretty exciting to see something you would think you would have to go to a national park to see," he said. "It's just seems so out of place. It's great that there are a lot of natural woods that critters like that can survive."
Some experts see a deeper reason for the phenomenon: A desire to believe in a comeback by nature.
"There is something in us that needs this sense of wild, especially in the most drab suburban places," said Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. "The cougar represents that. It reanimates things for people in these places that are as sterile as could be."
State officials say they believe the mountain lion found dead was kept illegally and either escaped or was released. They are conducting tests to determine its origins.
Alan Rabinowitz, a zoologist who is president and CEO of New York-based Panthera and whose research in Belize in the 1980s led to the creation of the world's first jaguar preserve, said he agrees with wildlife officials that lions found in the Northeast have captive origins. But he said it's possible a small population of lions has learned to exist in the wild.
"There's a possibility that they are surviving in small numbers in the wooded areas of the Northeast," Rabinowitz said. "Some of these could be multi-generational. Having once been captive, they are now wild animals. They are not just being set free as pets."
Rabinowitz said there have been credible sightings of mountain lions around the Northeast along with tracks and hair. He said there is plenty of prey such as deer, and mountain lions are highly adaptable and secretive.
But other private and government experts disagree. They say even a small population of mountain lions would be detectable through tracks, cameras set up by hunters and accidents with vehicles, but extensive surveys and investigations have failed to turn up signs of a population living in the wild or breeding.
"The evidence is not there," said Mark McCollough, endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who wrote the report concluding the eastern cougar was extinct. "Even if there were captive animals released in the Northeast, we have no evidence that if there were they have survived for very long and left much if any trail of evidence that can point to a cougar persisting in this area."
The closest possibility was in Delaware, where numerous cougar sightings were reported for a few years nearly a decade ago and then stopped, McCollough said. He said one or two cougars likely survived in the wild for a short period.
McCollough's report acknowledges credible sightings of cougars in the Northeast.
"Based on the best available scientific evidence, we believe these are released or escaped captive animals. Breeding, if it occurs, seems to be extremely rare, and there is no evidence of a persisting population established from released captive animals," the report concludes.
Cougars remain out west and some have extended their range into Midwestern states. Some experts believe they will eventually make it back east.
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this story.