Beware of the cat

| 21 Feb 2012 | 12:17

VERNON — Laurie Walsh has made it her life’s work to rescue stray cats, but not the kind that have been reported to be prowling the wilds and the not-so-wilds of Sussex County. In May, according to Vernon Township Police reports, a Fed-Ex driver found what he said was a mountain lion in his truck when he returned from making a delivery in Highland Lakes. And at the beginning of this month, a township policeman and his wife saw a female mountain lion with a cub in their backyard in the Glenwood section. The next morning, the couple discovered a slaughtered domestic cat and two kittens, apparently killed by the lions. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas and catamounts, are both magnificent animals and dangerous predators. Adults weigh about 150 pounds and can range 35 miles in one day. Walsh, who saw one herself two years ago, is convinced the reports of sightings are not mistakes. She also thinks the public should know about the sightings and be aware that pets and children can be at risk. “It’s something that needs to be brought to the public’s attention,” said Walsh, who runs the CLAWS cat rescue shelter in Sussex. Unlike black bears, which are rarely aggressive, especially towards humans, a cougar, she said, “from my knowledge will definitely come out any time day or night. A cat would pose a danger to domestic animals and possibly to children.” “They stalk their prey - even a human,” said Capt. Kenneth Kozicki of the Vernon Police. “I would tend to tell people to be alert and be aware of their surroundings.” The most recent reported sighting was on June 1, when Christine Fitzgerald, who lives on Tallahatchie Drive in the Glenwood section of Vernon with her husband, Vernon Township police officer Sean Fitzgerald, came virtually face-to-face with what she is certain was a mother cougar and a cub in her back yard at 1 in the morning. Kozicki said that Sean Fitzgerald saw the cat, as well, and Kozicki is convinced the couple did see a mountain lion. The next morning, they found a stray cat and two kittens Christine had seen earlier on her property mauled and killed. Vernon Township Manager Don Teolis said that Tom Maellaro, the township’s animal control officer, had recently reported that there had been a handful of reports of cougar sightings this year. Maellaro, who was out of town for the week and could not be reached for comment, told Teolis he was trying to determine if the reports were credible and were not sightings of bobcats, since a large bobcat can stand 21 inches tall and run to about 30 pounds. In neighboring West Milford, animal control officer Beverly Lujbli said she is aware of no credible reports of sightings. “They’re not native to New Jersey,” she said, adding that if there are any about they could be animals that were purchased as exotic pets and released into the wild. Fitzgerald says she is certain of what she saw. Describing herself as “a huge animal lover,” who also works to rescue stray cats, she is familiar with the wildlife of Sussex County. Her home in Glenwood borders on the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. Her encounter came after midnight, but earlier that evening Fitzgerald had noticed a stray cat with two kittens in her yard and was concerned about them. As she was getting ready to go to bed, she said, “I had just turned off the air conditioning. About 15 minutes later, I heard the cry of a kitten, and it wasn’t a good cry.” Afraid that something was attacking the cats she had seen earlier, she grabbed a flashlight, ran outside and panned the light across the yard. The first thing she saw was the rump end of a large animal and then the full length of what she said could only have been a mountain lion. Fitzgerald says the cat was about six feet long, better than four feet tall on all fours and “all muscle.” It was definitely not a bobcat. “I slowly backed up, and she just proudly stood there,” Fitzgerald added. “She went back and sat down next to her cub.” Fitzgerald initially went back into her house. But, filled with adrenalin and still concerned about the stray cats, she went back out again. This time, the cougar seemed more irritated. That forced a frightened Fitzgerald back into the house with her husband. “There was no mistaking what we saw,” Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t a wolf, it wasn’t a big dog and it wasn’t a bobcat. She was standing 15 feet in front of me. I went back up on the deck and tried to make a lot of noise to scare her off, and she later left.” The next day, Fitzgerald went back out and made a gruesome discovery - the stray cats she had seen the previous night, a mother and two kittens, were dead. “I was crying,” she said. “I couldn’t even bury the last kitten. It was very sad.” According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, mountain lions are considered rare in New Jersey, although according to one published report two years ago, a Somerset County woman reported seeing one eating from a bowl of dog food in her garage. Also, Fitzgerald told of a Bergen county homeowner who reportedly had a pet mountain lion later confiscated from his home. Common throughout the area before the arrival of Europeans, cougars, which will prey on livestock, were eventually hunted out of existence, a fate that wolf populations also met. The animals still range freely in the West and a subspecies is endemic to Florida. State wildlife officials were unwilling to speculate about whether what Fitzgerald saw was actually a mountain lion, although they did not deny that there have been reported sightings of the animals. Fitzgerald speculates the cougar and her cub may not have come from a great distance away. “I don’t think she migrated here,” Fitzgerald said. “She just wasn’t frightened enough of a human for the first time. We went on line to research this and every other link was about buying exotic animals. We never clicked on them, but we just wanted to see how easy it was to purchase one. “Did someone get in over their head and just dump an exotic animal (outside)?” Fitzgerald continued. “How do you handle an exotic pet when you can’t even take them to a vet? You dump them off somewhere. I think she was someone’s pet.” And if it was an exotic pet that escaped, added Walsh, how did it get pregnant and have a cub? The Vernon resident also feels that while the mother cat was killed by the parent cougar, the cub that was being taught how to hunt badly mauled the two kittens. “I’ve had nightmares and I didn’t sleep for a few days afterward,” Fitzgerald said. “She was 20 feet right after our drive way, and our driveway pushes back a little more and is probably 20 feet away from the wildlife preserve. It’s frightening. It’s near where my neighbors’ kids play, and they haven’t played there since that happened. “We’ve actually gone back outside and pruned bushes,” she added. “I don’t call the police every time I see a bear, but we pruned all our low-laying bushes just for peace of mind.” The Vernon Township Police did not return phone calls seeking more information. “She was beautiful, but I never want to see her again unless she’s in a zoo,” Fitzgerald concluded.