YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — You couldn’t blame people for being worried.
“Two large cats spotted near Mount Rose Cemetery,” read the headline of a release by a local police department, which urged “caution” and even made reference to “a mountain lion,” although the release didn’t specifically say the cats in the photos and video taken by a neighbor were mountain lions, which haven’t been known to live in Pennsylvania since the 1870s or 1880s.
The report was credible enough that Tom Keller, a man who works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and has the rather specific job title of “furbearer biologist,” went to where the neighbor spotted the cats. Not because the cats would likely be there then, but because some investigative work with a mix of somewhat high and quite low technology could help figure out just how big the “big cats” are.
The challenge: “When we look at photos, particularly zoomed-in photos, we start to lose the ability to understand what the actual size is,” particularly if there’s not something else in the photo of a known size — a person, for example. Behind the cats were bushes, but who knew how far behind the cats the bushes were or how big the bushes were? So Keller had to find something in the photo he could measure.
“In this case, what we found was, there is a piece of vegetation that was very unique, and we were able to locate that and then measure that,” Keller said. “And then that actually ended up being about 16 inches” tall.
He also brought wooden cutouts the size of different adult cats: a mountain lion, a bobcat and a regular old house cat.
“The landowner was kind enough to allow us into their home and take a photo with the same zoom, making sure that the framing was all correct,” Keller said. “We were able to then compare the original photo with the photo we took with [the] cutouts.”
“They were actually house cats,” Keller said.
Maybe feral, maybe somebody’s pets — but definitely not… big.
Embarrassing, perhaps, for the homeowner or the police?
Absolutely not, Keller said. When the neighbor saw what looked like big cats, he did the right thing by calling the police. And when Spring Garden Township police saw the photos and video and didn’t have the in-house expertise (as most police departments don’t) to rule out a threat, they did the right thing by alerting the public and calling the Game Commission — which, thankfully, has a furbearer biologist who knows just what to do with a mix of digital photography and wooden animal cutouts.