Cat tales

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A mountain lion/Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of an unconfirmed sighting of a mountain lion on the Anchorage Hillside, it is worth revisiting the history of cougar reports in and around Alaska’s largest city.

Wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say there is no evidence to indicate a mountain lion now on the prowl, an assessment which is wholly in keeping with the history of past reports. 

Until his retirement from Fish and Game in 2010, Rick Sinnott spent decades as the Anchorage area wildlife biologist, and in that time made an effort to chase down a variety of mountain lion reports.

“‘Investigate’ might be too strong a word,” he said in an email. “But if the sighting was recent and if I had time, I tried to check it out.”

Sinnott’s biggest discovery was that people have a strong tendency to see what they want to see. Human vision is distorted by what humans think.

As Science Daily observed, “Letting your imagination run away with you may actually influence how you see the world. New research from Vanderbilt University has found that mental imagery—what we see with the ‘mind’s eye’—directly impacts our visual perception.”

Or, as Joseph T. Hallinan put it at simply at Psychology Today, “we see what we want to see.”

Psychological studies of human, visual perception lead to the easy and unavoidable conclusion that it would be normal enough for someone who saw an oversize lynx in Anchorage to, on reflection, attach a long tail to that observation and report a mountain lion.

Which brings us back to Sinnott and his history of Anchorage mountain lion sightings.

Here kitty, kitty

He detailed those experiences in an email. The best example of someone seeing what they want to see might by this one:

“Another time a woman called and told me she lived in East Anchorage and had just seen a mountain lion out her window,” Sinnott wrote. “I started to ask her about the size, color and tail and she cut me off. ‘I’m from Montana. I know what a mountain lion looks like!’

“Extremely skeptical, I still went because it was only 15 minutes away, and she had just seen it. She waved me inside and led me to a bedroom at the back of the house. She told me she had seen it again after she called. It was less than 100 feet away, walking back and forth on the treeline. She left the room and I watched for a minute or two.

“Then I saw a large cat walking on the berm she had pointed to. She came back in and told me that was the lion. I said, ‘No, that’s a cat,’ and left.”

Sinnott had other similar experiences.

No, no, no

Here are his recollection of the best non-lion mountain lion sightings:

  • One guy called to tell me he had been driving home from Anchorage to the Mat Valley late one night. He might have said from a bar. And he saw a mountain lion crouched in the ditch within feet of the Glenn Highway. He especially recalled the yellow eyes. I usually asked about the tail too, but it was dark so I don’t recall if he said he saw a long tail. Anyway, it had snowed a day or so earlier and he told me the exact road sign the lion was crouched next to. It was one of the Peters Creek exits. So I drove out there. There were no tracks by the sign. A moose had crossed the highway that night not too far from the sign. And I found a set of coyote tracks 200-300 feet from the sign. That’s probably what he saw.
  • A mountain lion was spotted on Elmendorf (Air Force Base) once in the cantonment area west of the runway. I don’t recall if one of their wildlife techs saw it, but they checked it out and the tracks in the snow were huge, according to them. They seemed to be convinced it was a lion.  I looked at (the tracks) later that day or the next. I don’t recall that it was warm or sunny, but I seem to recall that the tracks were melted out slightly. They looked a little big for lynx tracks, but the stride wasn’t very long. I called them lynx tracks. Then they gathered some hair they said they had found and sent it off for a DNA test. I never heard about it again. Lynx.
  • Someone once showed me some blurry photos of a lion they claimed had been taken on the Kenai. The vegetation in the background looked like chaparral or some other high desert brush.

Sinnott remembered getting about a call per year, or maybe a little less, reporting a mountain lion sighting. None of the reports ever checked out.

“If a mountain lion had been in Anchorage,” he added, “the phone lines would have lit up” as they do when bears emerge from their dens in the spring. Fish and Game and the Anchorage Police Department annually gets swamped with bear calls.

The APD was getting so many calls this year it actually issued a media release saying that “there is no need to call if the animal is passing through the area, walking on the side of the road or exhibiting other natural behaviors.”

There has been no rash of mountain lion calls, and there has yet to surface a photo of the elusive cat in an age when many, if not most, Anchorage adults carry around a smart phone with a built-in camera.

Some of them might be reading this story on such a device now.

If you are, and if you happen to see a giant, brown lynx with a long tail snap a picture. Lynx are native to the Anchorage area, and they are now plentiful because the snowshoe hare cycle is near a peak.

Mountain lions are not native to the Anchorage area, but a photo could confirm they are here as unlikely as that now seems.




5 replies »

  1. If there is “no evidence of a mountain lion on the prowl”, why have you written two stories about it? People can post whatever they want on social media. For example, I saw a giraffe swimming across the Kenai River yesterday. It might have been an aspen branch, but I’m pretty sure it was a giraffe.

    • because Pete, it is obvious some things on social media are taken differently than other things on social media. no one in their right mind is going to believe the Kenai giraffe. a cougar in Anchorage? there seem to be a lot of people who want to believe that. and it is possible; just not probable. thus the need for a little more thorough examination of what evidence is available, which turns out to be none.

  2. Yes, you can say there have been no confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Southcentral Alaska. But statistics would say there are mountain lions living in Alaska, as exotic pets. Heck, I bet there are even tigers living in Alaska. The WWF estimates there are over 5000 “backyard tigers” in the US. More than the 3200 tigers world-wide that live in the wild. How many of those 5000 tigers live in Alaska? Who knows. Maybe 1 or 2? I doubt the number is “0”. A secluded remote Valley estate. A large Hillside complex. Complete with a den for Tigger. But, but, but … that would be illegal!? Yeah, so what? I know a person (and Craig you actually know the person too) that once smuggled a raccoon to Alaska, had it as a pet for a while and then smuggled it back out (as a “cat”). It was easy. And a raccoon doesn’t even look much like a cat. So bringing exotic cats in and out of AK as “Lynx point Siamese kittens” is dirt simple. A mountain lion kit, no problem. So the point is … if a smartphone picture of a cougar on the outskirts of Anchorage does one day emerge, wildlife biologists will be all atwitter with theories of what route the animal took to migrate here. When the most likely story about the cougar will be that mom and dad were out of town, the kids had a big party and the big pet exotic cat got loose and took off.

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