Someone’s Lion: A Look at the Winchester ‘Mountain Lion’ Mystery

Experts "conclusively stated" that tracks found in Winchester belong to a mountain lion. But the state says "no way."

The Winchester mountain lion saga continues!

Although they haven’t bagged and tagged a giant cat, Winchester Police are now claiming that a new, second mountain lion sighting, and subsequent tracks found in the snow, do, in fact, belong to a wild feline.

On February 27, police received the first report of a mountain lion lurking in a wooded area in the Boston suburb. They responded to the scene and received photos of alleged mountain lion tracks. After close examination, state officials said the tracks likely belonged to a dog, and the discussion ended there. “Sorry, no mountain lion,” officials told Boston in an email last month, after the first reported sighting. “It would be highly unlikely given that the closest populations are hundreds of miles away.”

National experts agreed.

Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, told us that sure, it’s possible—after all, one time a mountain lion made it all the way to Connecticut before being killed. The thing is, he said, is that he wouldn’t bet his life on it. “They would have to do a lot traveling to get to Massachusetts,” he told us.

But now, in a twist, Winchester Police report that just 10 days after that initial sighting —10 days!—another resident swears they saw a big furry beast just strolling through the neighborhood, casually leaving its mark in the form of snowy paw prints. They even sent the latest images of the prints to other experts across the country (sorry, Dunbar, you weren’t on the list) and those professionals are backing up the police department’s contentions. “A photograph of a second paw print located at this sighting was sent to several independent mountain lion organizations in the United States.  Experts from those organizations have conclusively stated that the paw print belongs to a mountain lion,” police said in a statement on March 20.

Sounds convincing, no doubt. They even provided a photo of the alleged paw print, with a diagram of what a real mountain lion print looks like. There’s no way the Internet would ever lie, so it has to be legitimate, right?

Well unfortunately, Winchester brass, the state still doesn’t buy it. “We stand by our contention that this is absolutely not a mountain lion. We have sent the photos to several out-of-state experts, including a western mountain lion biologist, and all the feedback we have received is supportive of our original interpretation that these tracks were made by a coyote or dog,” said a spokesperson from the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Dunbar, who we decided to reach out to again on the topic, said Winchester Police should be careful and make sure they don’t have a bogus paw print. “I would think [the pictures] would have to be fairly better quality than what we saw the first time [there was a sighting in Winchester],” he said. “It’s always possible that a lion has showed up in that area—a wandering one from outside the state—but most of the officials want more than just a track. There’s always going to be bits of fur found on trees and branches nearby—scat, things of that nature. While it’s possible they have found evidence, there are hundreds of photographs of mountain lions and tracks online.”

Here’s why Dunbar and the state may be skeptical about the claims: Massachusetts’ history with the mountain lion is shoddy to say the least. The last actual confirmed mountain lion sighting dates back more than a century, and alleged sightings since then have usually been nothing more than a person mistaking other members of the feline family for the large animals.

But Winchester Police still want residents to be on the lookout, and keep safe just in case there is a feline calling their little town home. “The Winchester Police Department is reminding residents to be mindful that a mountain lion may still be in town,” they said in their statement, which linked out to a list of “tips” about staying alert.