Joseph P. Duhamel has become the self-proclaimed Wyatt Earp of Chamberlain Hill.
Lately, he doesn’t head out to the barn without first strapping on a sidearm.
“I haven’t seen it, and I’m not sure I want to see it, but I’m ready in case I do,” Mr. Duhamel said of whatever it was that went into his pasture last month and killed two of his Holstein heifers.
There have been sightings, neighbors say, of a large animal — a sleek, tawny-colored cat with a dark muzzle and long tail that some are sure is a cougar.
“I know what I see,” Samuel A. Masson said. “I saw it a couple weeks ago, just standing up on the cart road. That was about a half-mile from Joe’s place.”
Another neighbor told Mr. Duhamel a mountain lion had been circling his horse paddock, but it ran off when he came out.
Even 30-year veteran Animal Control Officer Anthony R. Kukas is a believer.
“I know there is (a big cat around),” he said. “I get calls all the time. … I ask the people to describe it, and they tell me it’s bigger than a golden retriever, brown with a long tail. You tell me what that is.”
But he’s not sure what killed the cattle.
Mr. Duhamel’s family heard a horrible sound late that April night after they’d finally quieted their dogs.
“Those dogs were going crazy,” Mr. Duhamel said. “I opened the door, and they ran right in like they were shot out of a gun.”
With the frantic dogs calmed, the family headed back to bed, only to be awakened by a frightening, screaming sound that “I can’t even describe,” Mr. Duhamel said. “It went right through you.” He was certain it wasn’t a fisher or coyote; he’s heard both before.
He and his soon-to-be son-in-law, Neil M. Thayer, raced from the house. Mr. Thayer heard something that sounded like a lone animal racing away through the woods. The morning light revealed a mangled heifer carcass, and a few days later, a second cow’s body was found. A third cow that had been sick also was found dead, its legs chewed but far less damaged than the others.
They sat outside late into the night for a few days but saw nothing. Still, he said he believes the culprit was a big cat.
Mr. Kukas came and found coyote tracks, but it was a few days before William J. Davis, a district supervisor for the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, learned of the attack and went to the farm.
The results of his visit? Inconclusive.
“It was well after that fact when I looked at the one animal that was still there,” he said. He’s not convinced there are Eastern mountain lions in Massachusetts, though scat from one was found at the Quabbin in 1997. DNA testing proved it came from a cougar, but the big cat was never seen, Mr. Davis said.
“Nobody would welcome the return of the Eastern mountain lion more than a wildlife biologist,” Mr. Davis said, adding that there’s been no hard evidence to show they’re in the area.
Until recently, there was no evidence of wolves, either, but in the fall of 2007, a farmer in Shelburne shot and killed a predator that had taken several sheep in the area. It was a North American gray wolf. Wildlife experts believe it escaped or was released from captivity.
Mr. Davis is hoping that people in Barre will keep their eyes open and cameras ready, just in case. He said a photograph — though he’s seen many that proved to be hoaxes — or video would help identify a cougar.
He recommended that anyone who finds tracks they suspect are from a cougar, photograph them and place a dollar bill in the frame for scale.
While Mr. Davis would like to see a cougar, Mr. Duhamel, a teacher at Quabbin Regional High School, said he’s hoping there’s not one around to leave any evidence, or wreak more expensive havoc on his farm.
Property owners acting within state laws can take action to rid themselves of troublesome wildlife. In a case in which public safety is threatened by wildlife, Mr. Davis said, police should be called.
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