August 28, 2018

A Mountain Lion in Brookline Massachusetts?

If you ever want to read strange things you should look through your town's police blotter. Many unusual occurrences happen every day and most people don't even notice - except for the police. For example, here are a few interesting things reported in the August 16, 2018 edition of The Brookline Tab, the local newspaper for Brookline, Massachusetts.
"Tuesday, Aug. 7 - Suspicious person on Harvard Street: At 7:28 p.m. a caller reported that a man wearing mask, aviator glasses, a skull head necklace and an American flag pin was harassing the caller's girlfriend.  
Wednesday, Aug. 8 - Assault and Battery on Beacon Street: At 5:31 a.m. a caller reported that at midnight  his roommate threw a jar of mayonnaise at the back of his head."
Those aren't the worst of it. Next to the list of police incidents is an article titled "Police: Man wearing nightgown and garter gropes woman." It describes how a "stocky man in his 20s wearing a black dress or nightgown with a lace garter belt" grabbed and groped a woman at the intersection of Washington Street and Salisbury Road early on the morning of August 6. Yikes!

Perhaps the summer heat is driving people to commit weird crimes. But I'm not sure what to make of this report:
"Wednesday, Aug. 8... Strange looking animal on Addington Road: At 10:01 p.m. a caller reported a strange looking animal walking back and forth in the area. The caller thought it might be a mountain lion as it was too big for a fox or coyote."
Brookline has a lot of wildlife (rabbits, geese, turkeys, coyotes) but as far as I know there aren't any large carnivorous cats roaming around. And to make things stranger, Addington Road is in the densely settled Aspinwall Hill area. It's only a few blocks away from the Green Line. It is definitely not a rural area. Could there really be a mountain lion in Brookline?

There are a few possible answers:

1. The caller was mistaken.
If you're a natural skeptic you'll find this the most appealing explanation. Ordinary things often look very different in the dark, and the caller probably really saw some other animal (a dog or coyote). Maybe they just saw a raccoon or skunk which looked bigger in the dark, or misperceived the shadows thrown by leaves and streetlights. 

Addington Road in Brookline
Humans have an innate tendency to see living beings in inanimate phenomena. For example, have you ever seen a stick in the grass and thought it was a snake? This psychological trait is called pareidolia and it seems to be an evolutionary survival from a time when humans always had to be on the lookout for predators. It's safer to think something is a mountain lion rather than assume it is just a shadow. You wouldn't want to blunder into a large hungry cougar!

2. It really was a mountain lion. 
Mountain lions were once common in New England but were exterminated by the European settlers. There are still mountain lions in the western parts of the country and in Florida, but none around here. Despite this New Englanders report seeing mountain lions to the present day. For example, in 2014 citizens of Winchester, Massachusetts reported seeing a large feline creature in town, as did people in Rhode Island, while in the 1980s a mountain lion reportedly terrorized parts of Cape Cod. There's even a bulletin board for New England mountain lion sightings.

However, local wildlife authorities claim there are no mountain lions in New England. Well, to clarify, they say there is "no evidence of a reproducing mountain lion population." To quote this official Commonwealth of Massachusetts site:
Mountain Lions became scarce in the East after a bounty system wiped out most predatory animals. Today, Mountain Lions are found in the mountainous regions of the West. There is also a small population in southern Florida. 
Despite this fact, Massachusetts residents continue to report Mountain Lion sightings. It is difficult to know if someone saw a Mountain Lion without any tangible evidence. 
Nowadays, many reports include photographic evidence, thanks to camera phones and trail cameras. There have been only two cases where evidence supports the presence of a Mountain Lion in Massachusetts. All other reports of Mountain Lions in Massachusetts have turned out to be other animals.
In April 199, a hunter found unusual animal scat near the Quabbin Reservoir; lab tests confirmed it came from a mountain lion. In March 2011, a forester photographed animal tracks in the snow near the Quabbin, which were again confirmed to be from a mountain lion. Those are the only two cases of authenticated mountain lion evidence in modern Massachusetts.

Totally excited for monster-hunting - just as long as I never find one!
However, in June 2011, a male mountain lion was struck by an SUV and killed in Milford, Connecticut. DNA testing showed that the animal had traveled all the way from South Dakota to Connecticut, a distance of 1,800 miles. Most mountain lions don't roam that far. Still, I suppose there is a very, very slim chance that a mountain lion made its way from a western state to New England and came into Brookline. 

3. Manitous, witches, phantom animals.
Maybe it was really a mountain lion. Or maybe the caller was totally wrong and mistook something ordinary for a large predator. It was either real or it was not. The answer is either yes or no, right?

I think there is a third possibility, though, somewhere in that weird realm where myth, folklore and psychology collide. People in New England have been seeing unusual (dare I say unnatural?) animals for centuries. For example, the Algonquins believed the forests were haunted by a black fox. The fox was often glimpsed by could never be captured or killed, even by the most skilled hunter. It was a manitou, or spirit-being. 

The Puritans saw equally strange creatures. Puritans didn't believe in manitous, so they associated these strange animals with witches and the Devil. Witches and their familiar spirits were said to assume the shapes of cats, pigs, birds and strange bestial hybrids. For example, on February 27, 1692 Elizabeth Hubbard was walking home from her uncle's house in Salem Village when she realized a large animal was stalking her. She thought it might be a wolf, although wolves were rare even in the 1690s. There was something unnatural about the creature and although it didn't harm her she thought it might be a witch in animal form.

On April 19 of that year, Abigail Hobbs mentioned unusual animals in her testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer:
"I will speak the truth," she said. "I have seen sights and been scared. I have been very wicked. I shall be better, if God will help me." 
"What sights did you see?" asked Hathorne.  
"I have seen dogs and many creatures." 
"What dogs do you mean? Ordinary dogs?" 
"I mean the Devil." 
(quoted in Marilynne Roach, The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege, 2002)
Even in our modern, post-Puritan world people continue to see animals. Cryptozoologists and paranormal researchers often call them phantoms since they leave little evidence behind. For example, in 1976 a large black dog terrorized the town of Abington near Massachusetts's infamous Hockomock Swamp. A police officer shot at the beast after it killed two ponies but it ignored the bullets and walked off into the swamp. 

I didn't see a mountain lion, but there were a lot of wild turkeys down this path. I turned back!
Perhaps more relevant to the Brookline sighting, phantom animals of the feline variety have also terrorized towns near the Hockomock Swamp:
In 1972, in Rehoboth, Mass., a "lion hunt" was organized by local police. Residents of the area had been terrorized by what they said was a large cat or mountain lion. Cattle and sheep n the area had been mysteriously killed and carcasses were discovered raked with claw marks. Police took casts of the animal's tracks and used dog and helicopter in an attempt to track it down. Nothing was caught. But similar incidents involving phantom cats have occurred in other places throughout the Bridgewater Triangle and across the nation. None of these mysterious felines has yet been captured. (Loren Coleman, Mysterious America, 2007)
Spirits, witches, phantom cats - I don't know what these strange animals are, but New Englanders have seen them for a long, long time. I think they'll continue to see them in the future. Perhaps the caller who reported seeing the mountain lion on Addington Street was just part of this long tradition. Weird things happen in New England all the time, even close to the MBTA.

Animal graffito in Brookline

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Untrue: A Mountain Lion was hit by a car in Fairfield County Connecticut a few years back with the body recovered in addition to one shot in the Quabbin Reservoir area of Massachussetts. They are in New England in spite of what "The AUthorities" say.