auburnpub - A close encounter with wildlife on a road in Mentz startled a driver last week, and she's sure it wasn't a deer that had dashed across the road.
Just south of Port Byron, at about 1:20 p.m., an animal that the driver believes was an Eastern cougar, an endangered species commonly referred to as a mountain lion, surprised the driver and her passenger as they were on their way to the village in the vicinity of the Mentz water spout on Route 38.
Cougar sightings are rare in New York, but Cheri Emmi-Stebbins said she just saw one.
Emmi-Stebbins, a real estate broker, was heading north on Route 38 with her agent, Amanda Rossbach, to meet with a client when something leapt across the road from the east side about 50 feet ahead of her car and disappeared into the swampy wooded area to the west.
“We both saw it and thought ‘What was it?'” she said. “It was just as clear as could be.”
She described it as very muscular and a grayish color with short hair and estimated its weight between 100 and 120 pounds by comparing it to her 90-pound Rottweiler.
“It was as if it had springs on its feet,” she said, describing its motion as pouncing or leaping rather than running. The creature didn't look at the car but straight ahead.
“It was on a mission,” Emmi-Stebbins said. “We had clear vision. It went straight across, and it was moving.”
She slowed down the car and saw that it went into the gulley, but she continued on as there was traffic and she had an appointment in Port Byron.
She said if she had been alone she probably wouldn't have reported the incident because no one would have believed her.
Emmi-Stebbins called her father and reported it to Cayuga County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff James Stowell. She also called New York state police.
Stowell said he contacted state Department of Environmental Conservation officer Chris Nielsen.
Nielsen said that when big cats are spotted, it's usually because they escaped from captivity on private refuges.
Nielsen said people didn't necessarily have to take photos before the department would investigate a reported sighting of a wild animal.
“If it was immediate and fresh and we had somebody nearby, we would go and investigate,” Nielsen said.
In the case last week, though, the agency wasn't able to get someone to the site in time to investigate, so the siting could not be confirmed. Cougar sitings have been a challenge for wildlife officials.
Kurt Armstrong, an environmental biologist at the DEC's Wildlife Office in Cortland, said, “We try and secure verification of any sightings. Documentation is woefully non-existant.”
For people who believe they've seen a cougar, Armstrong suggested providing his department with photos of the animal or animal tracks to determine just what kind of animal it was. He said in his whole career since 1980, there have been only 3 or 4 cougars confirmed, none in this area. Among them one animal was an import from South America, he said, so it was probably kept on a private game preserve, while a couple were found in Region 5 in the Adirondacks.
One was shot by a hunter who thought it was a bobcat until he saw its tail. It was a young mountain lion of South American origin. That was determined by DNA analysis, Armstrong said.
The Eastern Cougar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides public education on the animal, said its common for people to mistakenly believe they've seen a mountain lion when they had actually spotted the more common bobcat, which in the east can have faint spots or none at all.
One method for securing evidence of a siting would be to find the tracks and put something down to indicate the measurement. Cougars have big feet, and if it was springing, the distance between the tracks could possibly be six feet. Pictures should contain a ruler or something to indicate the scale. Footprints could be between 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter.
Armstrong said if there really was a cougar spotted in Mentz, in all probability it escaped from captivity. If so, it will show up in the area again.
“Somebody probably turned it loose or it escaped. It wouldn't stay alive long,” he said.