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Winchester police warn residents about mountain lion sightings

State remains skeptical

Winchester Police Department

A footprint was seen in the snow.

WINCHESTER — In one corner we have the Winchester police, who are so certain there’s a mountain lion on the loose in town that they issued a reverse 911 call to warn residents.

In the other corner are state environmental officials, who have repeatedly insisted that what several people have reported seeing in the affluent suburb is actually a coyote or a large dog.

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In the middle are the residents of Winchester, who aren’t sure what to believe. After all, the last time the stealthy predator was confirmed in Massachusetts was in 1858.

“I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I’m keeping an eye on my poodle,” Jim Cook, 62, said as he walked his dog at Mullen Playfield, near the scene of one of the sightings.

The uproar began in late February, when a man walking his dog reported seeing a mountain lion — which is also known as a cougar, puma, panther, or catamount — off Ridge Street. Local police called in Massachusetts Environmental Police, who viewed the tracks and said they strongly resembled that of a mountain lion, according to Winchester Police Chief Ken Albertelli.

But when police sent photos of the paw prints to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, they were told they belonged to a canine, not a feline. But to be on the safe side, Albertelli said he decided to send out the warning to residents anyway.

Nine days later, on March 8, a woman driving on Mystic Valley Parkway saw something large walk into the street in front of her. Unsure of what it was, she went home, pored over Internet photos, and later walked into the police department carrying a photo of a mountain lion.

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Local police rushed to the scene, were able to get a better print from some soft snow, and sent the photos to the state. And again, they got the same answer: coyote or dog.

Albertelli was unconvinced. “I don’t want to be known as the nutty lion guy,” the police chief said, “but the witnesses we interviewed were all credible.” Plus, there had been a mountain lion sighting reported last year in town, when a woman saw a large cat that she described as having the face of a lion climbing backward out of a tree in her yard.

So Albertelli sent the paw pictures from the March 8 sighting to Cougars of the Valley, a Connecticut-based organization that researches mountain lions and cougars.

Their experts, and six other research teams in places ranging from California to West Virginia, returned a unanimous verdict.

“We are all in agreement that these were large feline tracks, consistent with a mountain lion,” said Ray Weber, an expert at Cougars of the Valley. “We’re not sure how [state wildlife officials] determined that it was a canine, but there are specific things you’ll see in a good dog track that just weren’t there in these prints.”

But state wildlife officials are standing their ground, issuing a statement Friday declaring that the animal is “absolutely not a mountain lion.” Amy Mahler, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the state sent the paw print photos to several out-of-state experts, who all supported their interpretation that the tracks belonged to a dog or a coyote.

There are certainly plenty of coyotes and other furry animals running around Winchester. It is a town with ample woods and greenspace, not to mention the massive Middlesex Fells Reservation on its eastern border. The town is connected to several other leafy suburbs that offer forest habitat for everything from deer to fisher cats.

Adrienne Altstatt, the farm manager at Wright-Locke Farm, a Winchester staple since 1638, does not think the mystery animal is a dog or a coyote. She has a big dog, she said, and she knows all-too-well what a coyote looks like because that big dog spends a good bit of its time chasing coyotes off the farm.

No, it’s a mountain lion, Altstatt said. And she knows because she saw it with her own eyes when it walked through a field on the farm in October.

“I knew it was a mountain lion, but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” she said Friday. “But when the news started coming out recently, I knew I was right.”

While she says she’s not concerned about herself or her dog — they still walk regularly in the 100-acre Whipple Hill Conservation Area that borders the farm — she said she is going to begin arming visitors to the farm with whistles when educators start bringing students there this spring.

The presence of a mountain lion in the Boston suburbs is an unlikely, but certainly not impossible, occurrence. In 2011, in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut, there were several reported sightings of a mountain lion, and much pooh-poohing from authorities, until a sport utility vehicle struck and killed the animal in Milford, Conn. Sure enough, it was a 140-pound mountain lion. Even more incredible — genetic testing confirmed it had come all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

And there is always the possibility that someone realized it was a bad idea to try to keep a mountain lion as a pet, and simply set it free.

On Main Street in Winchester on Friday, as the game of “is it or isn’t it” swept through town, residents said they were concerned, but not overly, about the potential presence of a predator in town.

“I still let my children out in the yard,” said Carla Cucinatti, who has three children between the ages of 4 and 8, “but I’m a little more vigilant in scanning the area and keeping an eye on them.”

And there was also a healthy dose of skepticism, much of it coming from inside Century Bank, where branch vice president Michael Long has been very vocal with his doubts.

“I just don’t think it’s physically possible that there’s a mountain lion that just popped up in Winchester,” he said. “How would it get through all the surrounding towns without anyone noticing?”

But as he was informed of the sighting by the farm manager — “I’d trust a farm manager to know a mountain lion” — and then began thinking out loud about how an animal might cross through town, connecting the green space like a necklace leading to the Fells, his tone softened.

“I still doubt it,” he said, before uttering what many in town have said since the sightings hit the media. “I need to see it to believe it.”

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Catalina Gaitan can be reached at catalina.gaitan@globe.com.

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