I was a "want-to-believer" walking into the lion's den — Bo Ottmann's mountain lion's den.
Each time I've written about mountain lions, Ottmann has invited me to see his part of northwestern Connecticut. Ottmann is the founder of the Friends of Connecticut Mountain Lion group, or "Cougars of the Valley." He's a diehard believer that mountain lions roam our woods.
Since 2007, Ottmann and his group have joined with other true believers across the northeast to investigate mountain lion sightings, researching and educating people on the value of mountain lions and their return to the wilderness.
I finally took him up on his offer after he sent me an e-mail about his new initiative. The group is seeking to document the existence of what Native Americans once called "ghost cats" by launching a campaign to purchase 20 high-definition trail cameras and bobcat gland scent stations to lure and, they hope, to capture images of mountain lions.
The group set up an account on indiegogo.com, a fundraising site where visitors can donate to the effort. There are many donation levels, ranging from $10 in cash to having the group set up a camera on your property to purchasing the equipment outright. Ottmann said he hopes to raise $9,000 for the cameras.
The cameras would be placed across a wildlife corridor from western Massachusetts through northwestern Connecticut and monitored by volunteers. The group is hoping to get "undisputed proof" of wild mountain lions. The goal is to lure the cats to the movement-activated cameras, provide high-quaility video, and recover biological samples for DNA analysis.
"They are here, we know that," said Ottman, of Canton. "We are going on 30 to 35 years of sightings in the state."
The only sticking point is that the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has a different view.
Department officials believe there are no wild populations of mountain lions in the east. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the cats extinct east of the Mississippi River except for a small, lonely population in the Florida Everglades.
The only substantiated claim of a cougar in the state came during the summer of 2011 when a mountain lion, later traced as having traveled from South Dakota's Black Hills, was struck and killed by a car in Milford. That incident gave the group hope it can change the minds of nonbelievers.
"There is a gap between sightings and physical evidence," said John Pettini, an emergency medicine physician at St. Francis Hospital with a degree in biology and vertebrate zoology and a member of the friends group helping to lead the effort. "You have 70 percent of sightings that are misidentified and we have a ground that doesn't lend itself to prints and tracks. And lots of grainy photos."
Pettini took us to one of the cameras attached to a tree near an open field in Canton. He said the camera has captured images of fox, coyote, bobcat, a bear — but no mountain lions.
So for now the ghost cats remain just that — specters of the forest — unless this intrepid band of ghost hunters comes up with some hard evidence to the contrary.
Visit http://www.indiegogo.com/ctmountainlion and http://www.ctmountainlion.org for more information. Ottman may be reached at email@example.com or 860-324-3174 for more information. Peter Marteka may be reached at 860-647-5365, at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.