Biologists ID Holden mystery beast

The photo is an eye-catcher. The scene, as it unfolded, was just as eye-catching for Holden resident Jennifer Newcomb.

“It was 10 o’clock in the morning, I was home with the kids,” Newcomb recounted, describing an event that took place in June. “I could see an animal. At first I thought it was my neighbor’s dog.”

It wasn’t.

Instead, Newcomb watched as a large cat prowled up the edge of her 1,000-foot-long driveway, stopping periodically to mark its territory. Newcomb grabbed her camera, hurried downstairs, and took the shot you’re seeing today.

“At first, you question yourself about what you saw,” Newcomb said. “Is this really what I think it is? And I’m still not sure what it was, to be honest. I sent [the photo] to our local animal control officer. he came up and said he thought it was a 40- to 50-pound cat.”

Newcomb said her main concern was the safety of her children; if the photo she took was of an animal that could harm them, she want to know about it. If not, she was satisfied: She didn’t take the photo to become famous for capturing proof of a yet-unheard of Maine black panther.

Now look at the photo again. Look at the size of the truck in the foreground. Now look at the cat in the back. Do you see what I see? Do you see what Newcomb thought she might have seen? Do you see a panther? In Holden?

If so, you’re not alone. And if so, biologists say you’ve made a common mistake.

“It’s a great illustrative example of perspective and size and size referencing,” said Keel Kemper, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Kemper said that after receiving the photo from the BDN, he shared it with other biologists. Five or six of them then came to a consensus about what they were looking at.

If you’re a conspiracy theorist you might want to stop here. If you still don’t believe the “mystery beast” that made headlines in 2006 was actually a dog, find something else to read. If you’re convinced that bigfoot lives behind the trailer across the street from your house … well … I can’t help you.

“This is, without a doubt, a very large, male tom cat,” Kemper said. “[A] kitty cat.”

Kemper and the other biologists reached their conclusion by stepping beyond the “it’s a big cat” description, and comparing dimension and reference points to those you’d expect if the photo was of a mountain lion or other large cat.

“There’s a couple of things to look at,” Kemper said. “In looking at the distance from the grass up to his belly, a kitty cat stands about ten and a half inches at the shoulder. A cougar, mountain lion, puma-type [cat], is about 28 inches at the shoulder. You should have a foot of air underneath that belly to the ground, minimum. What is that [in the photo]? Three or four?”

The other key indicator for Kemper is the tail. Kemper explained that large cats like mountain lions have substantial tails that this cat doesn’t possess.

“If it was a mountain lion or a big cat, its tail should be as big around as your forearm and about as long as your arm,” he said. “[In the photo] that one’s about 10 inches. This is clearly a big old tom cat that’s been beaten up pretty badly. His ears have been gnawed on pretty heavily so they’re a little rounded.”

And as to the panther argument? Well, Kemper’s a biologist. And he knows things that you may not. Like this:

“This is the deal with the black panther: There is really no species of a black panther,” he said. “Generally what is considered a black panther is a leopard or a jaguar that’s melanistic. You might say [it’s the] exact opposite of albinism. And this confines us, generally, to South American, south and southeast Asia.”

Kemper takes no pleasure in shooting down mountain lion sightings, or in refuting the claims of mystery beasts. The DIF&W fields “dozens and dozens” of reports of big cats each year, according to Kemper, and they take each seriously. Biologists are also bound to support their conclusions with solid physical evidence.

And Kemper admits that he’s made the same common mistake when it comes to identifying big cats.

“I remember having my own little mountain lion sighting,” he said. “I saw it, raced home, got my camera, raced to the site. And the paw prints in the sand were the size of a quarter.”

Kemper said when he was driving back to the site, he was sure he knew what he’d seen. And he was sure he knew what that sighting meant.

“I thought I’d found the holy grail. I’d spotted it,” Kemper said. “That was an excellent experience for me.”

Kemper has heard stories, tracked rumors and heard plenty of complaints from Maine residents.

“The [conspiracy theory] that I chuckle at is, ‘The fish and wildlife department doesn’t want to admit there are mountain lions in Maine because then they’d have to regulate them,'” Kemper said. repeating a popular myth. “We regulate everything down to butterflies. We’re not afraid to regulate.”

So, according to state biologists, today’s mystery is not that mysterious. Today’s big cat isn’t that big. That doesn’t mean you should stop paying attention to the critters you see. Kemper said he hopes his phone continues to ring off the hook with reports of mysterious encounters.

“I guess my message is, I want [to hear about] any and all encounters. We’d love to hear about them, we’d love to investigate them. We don’t intentionally discount them and say, ‘I’m not going to look at that.’ I’ve driven 100 miles to ID a coyote track and I’m happy to do it.

“That’s really our take-home message,” he said. “We love to track this dilemma.”



John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.