Just after 2 p.m. this past Saturday afternoon, April 9, Matunuck resident Karen Stackow was taking advantage of the favorable weather by gardening in her front yard when something on the road caught her eye.
“It went across the street and as soon as it hit the grass it was nearly camouflaged. It was exactly the color of that dead grass right there,” Stackow pointed as she knelt in her garden for an interview. “It had no markings on it whatsoever. No black ear tips, no other color than dead grass brown or tan, I guess.”
“We don’t believe this was an actual mountain lion sighting,” said Kurt Blanchard, Deputy Chief of Enforcement for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Regarding Saturday’s report he offered, “They recovered a deer carcass that appeared to have had some feeding from what possibly may have been a bobcat and or coyote activity on the carcass.”
"A review of the carcass by one of our biologists showed no evidence of a mountain lion," said Gail Mastrati, Media Relations with DEM. "We have not encountered anything to support that claim."
Witnesses say that they are not satisfied with the DEM’s comments, and they believe they have a different story to tell.
Seconds after Stackow had her front yard encounter, Matunuck resident Chip Longo was taking a water break from a bike ride with his girlfriend on Matunuck Schoolhouse Road.
“My girlfriend said ‘Chip look at that,’ and when I looked up this giant cat was in the middle of the road walking nice and easy like it just had a full meal and was looking for a nap… I swear the back paw was on the yellow line, and the front paw was leaving the pavement, just about. [Its body] was a good 4 feet long, with a long, slender tail just about as long…It stood pretty tall, about two and a half feet.”
Longo had been tracking his bike ride by GPS using his smartphone. On video, he provided a GPS-guided account of the sighting he and his girlfriend had.
On Matunuck Schoolhouse Road, a measuring tape showed the distance from the center yellow line to the road’s edge to be 8.5 feet.
In her account, Stackow noted the large cat to be approximately one-third the road width in length. The side street on which she resides measures 26 feet wide. She also described the cat’s tail as being about as long as its body, significant because bobcats are named for their “bobbed”, or short tails, according to National Geographic. Bobcats range in size from 11-30 pounds.
Shortly after their respective sightings, witnesses learned that a deer carcass had been found covered with leaves according to Stackow, Longo, and other sources. They reference the covering as significant, as wild cats sometimes cover the remains of a carcass if they plan to return to feed on it later on.
A 1998 study published in the American Midland Naturalist entitled “Behaviors of Bobcats Preying on White-tailed Deer in the Everglades” reports “Bobcats partially or completely covered 17 (52%) of 33 carcasses with plant litter.”
Both Stackow and Longo stated they knew how to distinguish between a bobcat and mountain lion, and they do not believe the cat they saw on Saturday to have been a bobcat.
As of press time Wednesday at noon, DEM biologists were not yet available for further comment on reported testimony.
On March 2, 2011, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a statement in which it declared the eastern cougar extinct. According to the release, reports of wild cougar sightings in the east have described subspecies other than that of the eastern cougar, such as western subspecies suspected to have migrated eastward, or others held captive and subsequently released.
The release directs readers to this link to frequently asked questions of cougar sightings.
There is a faint, nearly untraceable history of renegade cougar sightings in Rhode Island. A user posted in comments section on this backpacker.com article on where to see mountain lions:
I saw one in Scituate, RI in June of 09. Then April of this year, found a fawn carcass burried in the sand of the riding ring, at a stable in Exeter,RI. Two days after I removed the fawn, and it had rained, I found prints coming from the woods, through the ring to the very site the deer had been. The sand in that area had been dug & overturned. I've since started sharing my story with the locals & are finding more & more people have seen a cougar, or proof of one having been on their property. DEM claims we are mistaken,and that there are no cougars in RI. I beg to differ!!!!!!!!!!!! Posted: Sep 15, 2010 Rosemary Waterman
Witnesses acknowledged that individually, their claims might be hard to believe. Before conducting an interview on camera, Stackow expressed a general reluctance to comment, derived from a desire to not contribute to hype and incite fear in the community. She explained how she consulted local mountain lion proponent Bill Betty about her encounter.
“He made me feel so much better within five minutes of talking to him,” said Stackow. Separately, Longo expressed the same reluctance.
Both Longo and Stackow conveyed a strong emphasis on the absence of fear from their minds during the encounter, and a desire for the public to coincide with their opinions. In fact, Stackow also vehemently expressed no intentions to contact any press regarding her sighting. It is clear that around town, residents and witnesses have been talking about the incident, as this reporter received a tip from a source external to the story.
“We were just going to brush it off because no one would believe us. That was when we were getting on our bikes to continue our ride, when a neighbor, Karen, came out from a side street, and said ‘Excuse me! Excuse me! Did you guys just see something crazy?’”
Longo recounted his thoughts the instant he caught gaze of the large cat.
“It was just walking across the street. In my head, I went through everything imaginable. It was so alien. I was like ‘What the hell is that? Is that a mountain lion?’ We had time to see it… six to eight seconds that we saw this thing. I was in such awe, I had my phone camera but I didn’t pull it out soon enough.”
Longo and Stackow, who had not previously been acquainted, decided to exchange contact information when Longo was on the returning length of his bike ride. They decided it prudent to place a call to DEM to report the sightings. Another neighbor placed the call, as the deer carcass found was on her property.
“DEM called Sunday, and he came over and said there was another gentleman in the neighborhood who drove around in the afternoon, and he reported a sighting, so I would imagine they took four written statements,” Longo said.
Stackow demonstrated her impression that the DEM Police Officer who took her statement was in accordance with her opinion on the identity of the large cat. She explained that DEM officials had taken two scat samples in the area as well. According to DEM via Mastrati, the scat samples collected on Sunday belonged to a coyote.
Witnesses hope that time will provide conclusive evidence as to exactly what they saw. Both Longo and Stackow pointed out that their post-encounter research told them that wild mountain lions have an extensive home range.
According to a publication on the US Forest Service website, “Home ranges of 14 adult lions tracked over 12 months averaged 285 square miles. Those of females averaged 244 and those of males averaged 340 square miles.” The publication further discusses how mountain lions often prey on deer.
The US Census Bureau lists Rhode Island as occupying a land area of 1,044.93 square miles.
Despite DEM comments, witnesses are not budging on their opinions.
“We really got a look at it,” Longo said. “This thing was just walking lazily in front of us. We just stood there with our jaws dropped thinking ‘Wow.’” He added, “It was probably 80-100 pounds, you know, a mountain lion.”
“I saw what I saw,” said Stackow. “And I know what I saw.” She also reported the cat as appearing to weigh approximately 100 pounds. Asked if it could have been closer to 50 pounds, she responded, "No way."
“This looked like a female lion in Africa, said Longo. “It had that gait of a lion. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Stackow added a neighborly, comforting plea.
“People live with mountain lions everywhere in the west… This creature was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I’ll never be the same. It wasn’t like he was scary,” she said. “I want everybody to see him the way I saw him, because then they wouldn’t be scared.”