The Damned Story: Eastern mountain lions, or pumas or cougars, were last officially seen in Connecticut near the end of the 19th century. A threat to livestock, they were hunted out of the state and driven to parts more wild. With land cleared for farms and factories (nearly the entire state was deforested at the turn of the 20th century), there was no place for big cats to hide and nothing for them to feed on, so they disappeared not only from the Connecticut landscape, but from the Northeastern U.S. in general.
For nearly a century, there were no cats bigger than overfed tabbies in the region. But as farms disappeared and land reverted to forest, habitats for larger mammals grew. Deer (i.e. "food") were among the first to come back, followed by the predators. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, bobcats, coyotes and black bear now again roam the woods (and suburbs) of Connecticut, but mountain lions and cougars have yet to return.
Or have they?
In April 2005, Connecticut Magazine ran a story called "Seeing Ghosts," written by Brigitte Ruthman. In the article, Ruthman, an avid hunter and outdoorswoman, claims that she has seen Eastern mountain lions in the woods of the Litchfield Hills, as have many others in the state. When the story was posted online, it generated a very busy comments section which had dozens of reported cougar sightings. Sadly, this article wasn't transferred to the magazine's new site.
After years of alleged sightings, the DEP still does not believe in the possibility that there may be big cats again on the prowl here, suggesting that they were either misidentified bobcats or coyotes, and that there are absolutely no cougars in Connecticut (aside from those hanging out at the casinos looking for young boy toys). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a little bit more open about the subject as the Northeast Region office has established a good website on the subject, welcoming eyewitness reports and other evidence to conclusively prove the return of these elusive creatures.
Of course, like with many mystery creatures, until an actual specimen is caught digging through garbage cans behind the Capitol in Hartford, the debate will continue. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the big cats!
Update: In March of 2011 while on assignment for Connecticut Magazine, I got to discuss mountain lions with Connecticut Environmental Conservation Police Officer Paul Hilli, a 16-year veteran of the force whose area of assignment is the Northwest Corner of the state, including the Litchfield Hills. He has an interesting and informed take on the issue.
With all due respect to people who claim to have seen a mountain lion, Officier Hilli says he does not think there are breeding pairs of mountain lions in the state because there is just no physical evidence. He points out that in states like Florida where they are known to be, authorities will regularly find a carcass of a mountain lion hit by a car on a road at least once a month -- there hasn't been one single carcass recovered here yet. He also says there's been no other evidence found: no bones, no fur, no scat.
Officer Hilli says that if someone thinks that they have seen a mountain lion, he suggests that they clear out a section of woods, set up a bunch of trail cameras, put out some bait and wait to see if they get any actual footage or images of a mountain lion. If they do get a good picture or legitimate video, he recommends then contacting the EnCon police.
As for what people have seen, he thinks people either mistake bobcats or coyotes for mountain lions. He mentioned that once while on patrol, he thought he had seen mountain lion cross the road in front of him. When he stopped to investigate, however, he discovered it had only been coyote. Other than that, in all his years in the woods and forests of Connecticut, he has never seen one.
If an experienced outdoorsman and veteran officer (who is a trained observer) like Officer Hilli can misidentify a creature from a quick look like that, then it's very possible that an untrained observer might also make a similar mistake.
Officer Hilli says that it's always possible that someone might see an actual mountain lion in the state, but if they do, he thinks it's most likely to be an escaped one -- apparently, the idea of keeping large exotic cats is not crazy to some people, and when they tire of them, they just let set them free in the woods. He mentioned having to hunt down an ocelot one time.
For conspiracy theorists, Officer Hilli says that he has nothing to gain by denying or hiding the existence of mountain lions -- Connecticut is already home to other large predators including black bears, fishers and coyotes.