NEWS- 'I'm not crazy!' Witness sticks by cougar sighting
Last month, Marlene "Susie" Humphreys called wildlife officials to report her frequent sightings of a mountain lion around her Crozet home and her fear for her seven-year-old granddaughter's safety. Now she's not just afraid. She's angry following news reports in which those officials suggest she's mistaking a bear or some other animal for the big cat.
"I'm almost 50 years old," says Humphreys, shaking her head. "I think I can tell the difference between a cat and a bear."
She can also tell the difference, she says, between a bobcat– which has a short tail and typically weighs under 40 pounds– and a mountain lion, which has a long tail and can weigh up to 200 pounds.
"I was born in the country," she says. "I'm not some city girl."
The saga of the Crozet cougar is not new. Last summer, controversy erupted followed a series of cougar sightings. Philip Anderson, a Maryland man who's hoping to move to Crozet, wrote a letter in the Crozet Gazette warning locals of the dangers cougars pose to people– particularly to small children. Anderson's warning, however, was not appreciated by many, who flogged him in a flood of published responses.
"Stay in the big city where you are more likely to be 'mangled' by one of your own kind," wrote one, "rather than come here and impose your tyrannical views on our wildlife."
Danger posed by mountain lions, others wrote, is minimal since the animals are shy and have a huge natural food supply of white tailed deer and smaller mammals.
Anderson points to mountain lion attacks in California, and says anytime large predators live in close proximity to humans, there's a risk. He doesn't advocate killing cougars; he'd like them relocated to areas where they pose less danger. Humphreys' experience, Anderson now says, could become more common and lead other Crozet residents to fear for their children's safety.
Humphreys first told her story to a television news crew from CBS 19 on February 26. The big cat, she said, prowls her backyard, eating her dogs' food, and on one occasion, scratching on her granddaughter's bedroom window. Humphrey believes the cougar was tempted by two pet guinea pigs squeaking inside, and while she didn't actually see the cat on that occasion, she found paw prints outside the window the following day.
The day after that first story ran on television, however, officials from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries questioned Humphreys' claims in a follow-up report on Channel 19 and in a Daily Progress article titled "A Crozet catamount or just crazy talk?" Humphreys resents the implication of the headline.
"I may be a lot of things," she says, "but I'm not crazy."
Humphreys is not the only one who's seen the animal around her St. George Avenue house. David Shifflett, the father of Humphreys' granddaughter, Brianna, says he got up close to a cougar in late January when he was leaving the house one evening. About 20 feet in front of his car, light from his headlights illuminated the animal Humphreys had warned him about earlier that day.
"It bared its teeth," Shifflett recalls, reporting that his first instinct was to run over the animal to end the terror it's causing Humphreys. But as he pressed on the gas, the startled cat fled. "It was not a bobcat, a bear or a coyote," he insists.
Shifflett and Humphreys are not the only ones frustrated that a local cougar sighting hasn't been taken seriously.
Dozens of people, including a veterinarian, have reported seeing cougars around Crozet in the past decade.
One of those people says he has proof of a cougar around his mountainside house in Greenwood. A grainy photograph Richard Gaya took in 2004– which has run in the Crozet Gazette, the Hook, and now the Daily Progress– seems to show a large cat with a long tail. But even such photographic evidence isn't enough to convince officials that cougars are here.
"It looks like a bobcat to me," says Jerry Sims, Fredericksburg-based wildlife biologist and manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, of Gaya's picture.
Gaya counters that the photo leaves no room for interpretation.
"There's no way in the world you can't come to the conclusion," he says, "that this thing weighs at least 80 pounds."
Sims says the only hard proof his department will accept is a cougar carcass, and even that wouldn't prove more than that one such beast is roaming about. He says it's possible someone released a captive cougar into the wild, and he doesn't believe there's evidence of a "reproducing population."
Still, his department is finally taking steps to confirm what Humphreys saw. On Friday, February 29, a game warden mounted a motion-sensitive camera on a tree in her back yard. If the cat goes by, it will be captured on the department's own film. If its existence is confirmed, the department could set a trap to capture it or use dogs to "tree" it. The department would then relocate it to an area unpopulated by humans.
Until that happens, Humphreys and her husband, Harvey, aren't taking any chances. Although it's illegal to kill a mountain lion, which is considered endangered, the couple now keeps a loaded gun in the house to defend themselves.
"I don't like guns to start with," she says, "and to have to keep one loaded?"
She and Harvey say they wouldn't think twice about shooting the endangered animal to save something else.
"My granddaughter's an endangered species," Humphreys says. "There's not but one of her."
And if they face prosecution for killing the cougar?
"We'll just tell them we thought it was a bear," she says with a twinkling smile.