Some residents of New Jersey think they have new neighbors, and it has them worried about their safety.
Dangerous, wild mountain lions have been reported roaming the streets where children play and wait for school buses in the suburbs of the Garden State -- the most densely populated state in the country.
Despite the increasingly common reports of sightings in New Jersey, it's hard to know if there is a need for concern, since the state's Department of Environmental Protection has not been able to verify these claims.
Northwestern New Jersey is known for its beautiful scenery and mountains where black bear, foxes, bobcats and coyote live and roam.
Christine Fitzgerald who along with her husband Shaun, a Vernon Township police officer live in a neighborhood filled with children in Glenwood. The couple is unwavering in their belief about what they saw early one morning last June.
"We went outside to see what was making loud piercing shrieks in the backyard," she said. "Fifteen feet away from us, we saw a large blonde female mountain lion along with a cub that had just killed one mother cat and two stray cats [the Fitzgeralds had rescued].
"We called the state Department of Environmental Protection to report the incident but it took investigators more than a week to respond to us," she said. "The state's slow response is evidence that the state does not want to admit there are mountain lions in New Jersey."
Officer Fitzgerald confirmed his wife's story, and added that the incident had an effect on how how he responded to calls from people who think they've seen one of the big cats.
"When I respond to a possible mountain lion call, I don't doubt what people see because I know what we saw was a mountain lion," he said.
Could Mountain Lions be added to the list of animals that may call the streets of the New Jersey suburbs home?
Mountain lions are indigenous to the western part of the United States. Cougar expert Dave Mattson, a lecturer and visiting senior research scientist at Yale University, has studied cougars since 2002, including mountain lions, panthers, pumas and catamounts, all of which are appearing more and more in cities and suburbs because development is encroaching on their habitat.
Another thing drawing to cougars to these areas is that there is a lot of shrubbery that animals such as deer and elk like to eat there, and cougars like to eat deer and elk.
"The cougars are following their meal ticket into communities and that is the reason for an increased number of cougar sightings," Mattson said.
Laurie Walsh, a New Jersey SPCA officer and president of CLAWS, a rescue shelter for cats based in Sussex, N.J., described what she saw drinking from a puddle in her neighbor's driveway two years ago in late August.
"I came out on my deck and I saw this young male, approximately 60 pounds, with a long tail that was tan and thought, 'This is definitely not a bobcat...' I had to do a doubletake. I really couldn't believe it," she said. "Now we are very cautious at night walking our dogs. We told our daughters to be very careful and watch going outside.
"People have to realize that's the way it is here," she said. "We have bears and coyotes, but I was really shocked when I saw a mountain lion. People need to face reality that they are here."
How Dangerous Are Mountain Lions?
Though mountain lions are fearsome looking creatures, and several attacks over the last two decades have received a lot of coverage, Mattson said that like many wild animals, these big cats most likely generally avoid contact with humans.
"Since 1890 there have been 19 fatal Mountain Lion attacks in Canada and the United States," Mattson said. "Many of these deaths have occurred in British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. We are less certain about the total number of attacks (fatal and non-fatal), but recorded incidents are in the range of 80-90, in recent years averaging about three to four per year.
Most of the attacks have occurred in California, Colorado, and British Columbia, he said.
"All-in-all this is a trivially small number of attacks given the considerable co-extent of humans and cougars and the likely number of opportunities cougars have to attack humans where they choose not to," he said. "This number is also trivially small relative to numbers of people killed by leopards, lions, and tigers in other parts of the world. Comparatively, cougars and humans in North America do a remarkably good job of peacefully co-existing."
'Bears Don't Bother Me, Mountain Lions Do'
A few towns over from Sussex, in West Milford near the Highland Lakes border, Joanne Hinksmon said she saw a mountain lion in late August at 12:30 am coming home from work on a long country road.
"I saw the long tail and the tan coat. Now I don't go hiking with my son in the woods anymore," she said. "The bears don't bother me but the mountain lions do."
On ABC's Good Morning America on April 20, 2004, Anne Hjelle described how a a mountain lion attacked and nearly killed her while she was mountain biking in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2004.
"I saw a flash of fur; I had three choices of what it might be. One was that I had startled a deer; the second, a coyote; but it grabbed hold of me and instantly I knew it was a mountain lion," she said. "Initially it grabbed the back of my neck and it clamped down. He ended up readjusting several times, and did end up clamping down on the side of my face. And as he closed down, basically tore away my cheek.
"When he got me by the front of my throat and clamped down that was when I actually passed out," she said. "It was very close."
What Makes Cougars Attack?
As Hjelle's story illustrates, when a cougar attacks, a human being is lucky to survive.
"Cougars are potentially dangerous to humans in that they are well able to kill humans of any age," Mattson said. "Optimal prey size for cougars encompasses the full range of adult and younger human sizes. Moreover, small 80-to-90-pound cougars have been known to kill weakened 500-to-800-pound bull elk. This all speaks to potential."
But he said that potential -- for reasons that are not clear -- rarely becomes actuality.
"In reality, cougars very, very rarely attack humans, even when exposed to numerous opportunities," he said. "We know virtually nothing about factors that cause a cougar to stop looking at humans as non-prey and start looking at them as prey. Various analyses of cougar attacks on humans suggest that a smaller human jogging or running by at an oblique angle probably has the greatest odds of eliciting a spontaneous attack from a nearby cougar. Even so, we know nothing about what fraction of such situations actually does result in an attack."
Is There Any Proof Cougars Are in New Jersey?
Mountain lions are known to live in reproducing populations in parts of western North and South Dakota, far western Nebraska, eastern Colorado and Kansas, far western Oklahoma, and the western third of Texas west to the Pacific coast, Mattson said.
It is also believed that there are small reproducing populations in Michigan and the Ozarks, as well as in southern Florida -- the 80- to 100-pound animals known as the "Florida panther," he said.
But reports of cougar sightings have increased throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest in recent years, and Mattson said it is believed that some of these sightings are reputable.
Some other towns in New Jersey where possible unconfirmed mountain lions sightings have occurred include, Marlboro, Sparta and most recently on Nov. 22, in Roxbury.
If there are Mountain Lions in New Jersey, why hasn't there been an advisory issued and is there a public safety issue?
Elaine Makatura spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the state has not been able to verify any of the reports of mountain lions in New Jersey.
When asked if she thought residents were confusing coyote, bobcats or bears for a mountain lion, Makatura responded, "I wasn't there, I don't know what they saw, but the state has conducted scientific studies including scat and paw analysis and nothing points to mountain lions."