The Massachusetts Environmental Police has dispatched an officer to Shirley to look for a wild cat that local authorities believe is a mountain lion, an animal that has not been definitively sighted in Massachusetts since 1858.
Joseph Lynch, Shirley's public works director, said he had heard rumors of sightings, but did not think much of it until he saw the animal himself - twice.
The first time, he was standing with four people on a portion of Windsor Road that is under construction, when he saw a large cat walking toward him. It was about 1,000 feet from the Apple Orchard Estates development, where more than 100 homes are being built.
"We simultaneously shouted out and he jumped into the woods," Lynch said.
The beige creature had a round face and pointed ears, he said. He estimated that it measured about 6 or 7 feet in length and weighed 70 to 100 pounds.
"I didn't feel threatened at all; I was kind of awestruck [and] I felt a little embarrassed for not believing the people who reported it earlier," he said.
A few days later, he saw what he believes was the mountain lion in the same general area, he said. This time, the cat was in the woods about 20 feet from the road.
"It lay down on the ground and sunk down when I walked by," Lynch said.
Shirley Police Chief Paul Thibodeau saw the animal a few days later, standing in a path in the same area.
Because an elementary school is not far from the Apple Orchard Estates development, Thibodeau notified the School Department and called the Environmental Police immediately.
The state sent out an officer, but Lisa Capone, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said the animal is probably not a mountain lion.
For about a week, the Environmental Police officer has patrolled the Apple Orchard Estates area at night, the time of day when large cats hunt, Capone said. The Environmental Police also photographed the animal's tracks. The analysis of those tracks, which were affected by the rain and wind, was inconclusive, Capone said.
Previous reports of mountain lions in the state always turn out to be other animals, she said.
"There is not a population of them in Massachusetts," she said. "We do get reports of people who think they've seen them every so often. [But it] turns out to be something else - a bobcat, coyote, or sometimes a large dog."
Capone said the last recorded sighting of and eastern mountain lion in Massachusetts was in Hampshire County in 1858.
But Thibodeau is convinced that what he saw was not any of those other animals.
"It was a tan cat 3 feet tall with a long tail; that's what I saw," he said.
Lynch is also convinced he saw a mountain lion.
He said the animal did not look anything like a bobcat, which would only be two times larger than a domestic cat. This creature was about five or six times larger than an ordinary cat and it had slick beige fur, he said.
"There is no question in my mind that's what we saw," Lynch said.
Whatever it is, local officials are taking the issue seriously.
Interim Superintendent Malcolm Reid asked teachers to communicate with students about the possible presence of a mountain lion. He also told the elementary school's recess personnel "to be vigilant."
The police chief said he is sure he saw a mountain lion, and that it is probably someone's pet that was released when it got too big. It has probably been living in the area for a few years, he said, but was recently disturbed because of development in the area.
Danny Oneal, who lives on Windsor Road where Lynch saw the animal, said he isn't worried.
Oneal said he will continue to walk his dog at night regardless.
"I'm not going to change what I do just because someone saw a mountain lion. I'm not alarmed about it," Oneal said. "If it does exist, I hope they don't kill it."