Don't let cat get your tongue|selkie||08/17/06 at 21:39:12|selkie|xx|0||he Township Committee is trying to determine whether mountain-lion sightings in the area are fact or phantom.

Mayor Richard Palombo this week publicly urged residents who have seen a large cat — maybe a mountain lion or a big bobcat — to notify the township's animal-control officer.

“At this point, we're making everyone alert about it. The animal-control officer is looking at it if anyone sees an animal,” the mayor said.

Liam Hughes, who handles animal control in parts of Atlantic and Cape May counties, said there are no confirmed lion sightings. Nor could anyone find scat or tracks, called pug marks.

But the lion stories persist.

“There are reports of it. Nothing positive,” Hughes said. “Did you see this? Did you hear this? There are credible people who believe they saw something.”

State Police in Woodbine and the Cape May County Park & Zoo are aware of the rumored sightings. The zoo is home to the county's one and only known mountain lion.

Hughes said a cougar could make a tidy living in Upper Township, home to the Great Cedar Swamp and its countless muskrats, rabbits, turkey and deer — all cougar favorites.

But could a large cat remain undetected in a suburban township such as Upper?

“Mountain lions are reclusive animals in general. They won't come out in daylight. They generally will stay away from people,” Hughes said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection fielded unsubstantiated reports of a mountain lion roaming Monmouth County this year, spokeswoman Darlene Youhas said. But there have been no confirmed sightings in New Jersey in more than a century, she said.

The big cats are known by many names, including panther, catamount, puma and cougar.

A state biologist who looked at photos of Woodbine horses that suffered scratches said the marks likely were made by a post, tree or other inanimate object, not a set of panther claws.

Hughes has handled his share of wildlife calls as Upper Township's animal-control officer. Most complaints concern thieving raccoons or skunks. But he has chased a peacock down Route 9 and secured a herd of peripatetic cows.

The idea of a large cat wandering northern Cape May County seems to have fired people's imaginations, Hughes said.

“There is an element of mystery to the animal. People are enthralled by large cats. There's definitely one part mystery, one part fear,” he said.||