Mountain Lion Sightings Leave VA Authorities Scratching Their Heads

Posted by: Susan Fair on October 6th, 2014

“We really don’t know what the people who reported it saw,” Lucy Caldwell, Public Information Officer for Fairfax County Police, stated this week.

Caldwell was referring to reports of a mountain lion in Fairfax County VA (population one million plus, btw) that were apparently credible – and worrisome – enough that authorities took them quite seriously.

If you’re reading Cryptomundo you probably already know this, but the eastern cougar has been declared extinct and agencies like the DNR tend to equate a mountain lion report in the East with that of a leprechaun playing poker with Bigfoot.

But Fairfax County Police weren’t laughing. On September 11 2014 they issued a news release warning residents to beware.

What does an official police news release about a mountain lion sighting look like? Well, like this:


Mountain Lion Sighted, Recess Cancelled

One of the things that made these sightings especially alarming was their location: over the course of 2 days, police received 2 separate reports placing the animal very near Riverside Elementary School on Old Mount Vernon Rd.; both sightings were said to be by school employees. And the descriptions were identical: “a sand or orange color cat, about the size of a large dog with a tail equal to the length of its body.”

Parents of Riverside students received a letter from Principal Lori Morton about the possible cougar, informing them that outside recess was cancelled on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 as a precaution. Use of trails through the nearby woods was also prohibited for a time.

As the news spread, reports like these quickly sprang up…

…and eye-catching Shutterstock photos of random cougars like this one were tacked onto articles.

via Shutterstock.

These pieces in turn inspired an online onslaught of shamelessly bad “cougar” jokes (the kind that often involve Kim Cattrall) like this by one posted by one “Harvey Wallbanger:”

There were reports of a cougar sighting in my area so I set a trap baited with Journey’s greatest hits and a nice Cabernet.

As some made light of the situation, police – possibly at least partially motivated by the proximity of Riverside Elementary (and Mount Vernon High just across the street) to the alleged big cat– continued to take action, issuing warnings to residents and setting up cameras to try to catch the cougar in the act of… well, existing.

Even the Washington Post covered the story

Meanwhile the Fairfax County Police Department posted this on their Facebook page on Sept. 12:

Friday afternoon UPDATE: No Additional Cougar Sightings
Animal Control Officers and personnel from the Animal Services Division have been in the Mount Vernon Road area throughout the day. They have neither received any additional reports nor observed any additional signs of large cat activity. They have reviewed footage from surveillance cameras that were placed in the area overnight and there was nothing suspicious present. Additionally, the agency has been in contact with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and made them aware of the possible sightings.
Officials will continue to monitor the situation. Animal Services staff reminds residents: If you see this animal, do not approach it. Get to a safe location and call the police non-emergency number at 703-691-2131. An animal control officer will be dispatched.

Shaking Them Up

Police spokesperson Caldwell told us this via email this week:

“We set up trail cameras, which captured a number of animals – deer – cats – dogs – but we don’t know. We posted the info to the public to be cautious and to alert (not scare) them to be on the lookout.”

John Lutz, founder of Eastern Puma Research Network, has been tracking big cat sightings in the East for decades and has been no fan of the usual eye-roll reaction of authorities. But in this case, Lutz says, “They did real good.”

Does Lutz think there really was a mountain lion outside Riverside Elementary?

“I’ll wouldn’t doubt it,” he says. “As long as there is adequate food, water and habitat, there’s no reason mountain lions can’t live anyplace.” He adds, “As a matter of fact it’s (Fairfax County) right along the Potomac River. It’s a perfect habitat.”

Lutz, who receives hundreds of reports of mountain lions in the East each year, says he doesn’t think this particular cat has the state to itself. He says there’s no way to know for certain how many big cats call VA home, but adds, “If I had to take a guess I’d conservatively say… maybe 25.”

This cat, though, is likely to have moved on, the investigator says.

Just where is the big cat in question now? “South of Washington, probably. Most likely it followed the Potomac to Quantico, Dale City…”

Lutz, who believes strongly in the continued existence of cougars in the East, also has a sense of humor.

“This particular lion decided to go pay a visit to Fairfax County and shake up some people. And he did. He shook them up and now he’s gone on his way.”
His way, that is, to another spot on the East Coast – where many insist neither he nor any other mountain lions live – but where, it seems, some authorities – just to be safe – are starting to concede that they just might.

John Lutz in his WV office. Many of the binders on the right contain reports of eastern mountain lions spanning several decades.

Susan Fair About Susan Fair
Susan Fair lives on the shoulder of South Mountain in rural Maryland, where she works for a public library system. She can also be found writing for numerous publications, exploring the weird and offbeat, and working at an eclectic museum where she often eats her lunch next to a mummified arm.

2 Responses to “Mountain Lion Sightings Leave VA Authorities Scratching Their Heads”

  1. Goodfoot responds:

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why people have such a fit believing this. Despite the population density, habitat is abundant – there were Bigfoot sightings by a night patrol at the USMC HQ in Quantico, about 10 years ago; the FBI training facility is practically next door; deer are more than plentiful. They’re a downright nuisance, in fact, eating gardens and totaling people’s cars.

    In fact, I had a sighting of a “black panther” cub in Culpeper in the summer of… what year was it? 2000 or 2001, I reckon it was. Well, I didn’t see the head; when I looked in that direction, it was going into some thick vegetation (where Mama was, I figured, and kept walking), but I saw everything from the front shoulders to the end of the long, thick tail.

    And yes, it DID blow my mind.

  2. cryptokellie responds:

    With the over-population of prey items, especially white-tail deer, why wouldn’t the mountain lion make a come back in the Eastern U.S.? Suburbs that abut the forest areas make excellent habitat for the mountain lion. My area in PA. has dense forested tracts and county parklands that are over-brimming with prey animals. The cats could live here on road-kill alone. Add to that the unfortunate habit of people leaving edible refuse around and there are no reasons why the mountain lion can’t exist here in the East where it once did. The coyotes or more properly coywolves are here in my back yard, black bears are seen in the township I live in, can the mountain lion be far behind?

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