Big Cat in NJ - Part 2

03/17/2010

On Monday I posted about sightings of a large cat in Manalapan, New Jersey.  You've shared some great thoughts on what the animal might be and what we should do when animals show up in odd places. 

From my point of view, there are several possibilities as to what this animal could be:

Bobcat flickr Possibility #1 - It's a bobcat.  Bobcats are the only native cat still found in NJ and there are enough wooded areas and old farmland to support bobcats in Monmouth County.  The track that was photographed definitely looks like a cat track and is about the right size to be a bobcat. 

On the other hand, the size of the cat that was reported, its long tail and report that the it was chasing an adult deer would suggest that it's not a bobcat.  Bobcats are only slightly larger than the average domestic cat, have short tails (as their name suggests) and normally feed on rabbits, rodents and other small mammals and birds rather than adult deer.

However, it's my experience that 99.9 percent of people are extremely poor at identifying wildlife, particularly estimating the size and species of an animal.  It gets even worse if the sighting was at night.  It's a sad reality that most people are just not knowledgeable about the anatomy, signs, range and behavior of our native wildlife.  This is why most wildlife professionals have to take sightings by the public with a very large grain of salt.  They are not trying to be jerks or covering up some conspiracy, it's just a fact that statistically speaking, it's probably more likely that a person who truly believes they saw a mountain lion actually saw a bobcat (or something else) than it is that there are mountain lions roaming the forests of NJ.

Possibility #2 - It's a mountain lion.  Despite the fact that wildlife biologists list the species as extirpated in NJ for over a century, the fact that there is little suitable mountain lion habitat left there, and that there hasn't been a road-kill or other verifiable sign, reports of mountain lions in NJ continue to come in. 

Mountain lion flickr Even if most of those sightings are misindetifications or deliberate hoaxes, there's always a small possibility that there might actually be a mountain lion or two out there.  There are certainly enough white-tailed deer in New Jersey for mountain lions to eat.  If there are any lions in NJ, it is most likely that they are escaped captive animals, or their descendants, rather than a viable wild population.  There are no verifiable mountain lion populations anywhere near NJ that could supply a cats to the Garden State by natural range expansion, but it IS shockingly easy for a private citizen to acquire a large predator as a "pet"--legally or otherwise--and fly under the radar. 

However, the track that was photographed in Manalapan, NJ is definitely way too small to be an adult mountain lion.

Possibility #3 - I've got a strong hunch it's neither a bobcat nor a mountain lion.  Check back here on Friday to find out what I really think it is...!

Photo Credits:
Bobcat http://www.flickr.com/photos/ucumari/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mountain Lion http://www.flickr.com/photos/garytrinity/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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