Laugh all you want, but Agnes Muhl has no doubts about what she, her husband and her mother saw in the front yard of their Thurmont vacation home eight years ago.
"It was a cougar," insists the 57-year-old Catonsville woman. "It was sitting there looking at the smoke coming out of our chimney."
Mrs. Muhl isn't alone. Over the past 25 years, dozens of Maryland residents have reported cougar encounters, even though wildlife officials insist that mountain lions haven't roamed the state for at least a century.
The most recent sighting of a mountain lion in a Randallstown field Tuesday has revived claims that cougars aren't extinct in Maryland. Forget Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster. In Maryland, what inquiring minds want to know is whether big cats are prowling suburbia.
Thina Vanosnabrugge, a 41-year-old Hunt Valley woman, thinks they are. She was driving home from a shopping trip last spring when she spotted a large animal crossing Cuba Road in Northern Baltimore County.
"It was so unusual," she says. "I couldn't believe my eyes."
With its long tail and sleek, cat-like body, the animal was unquestionably a mountain lion, Mrs. Vanosnabrugge says. "I'm really positive."
But Ashley Straw has his doubts.
A regional wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources' Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, he says mountain lions were hunted into extinction by the people who settled Maryland. Big cats suffered the same fate all over the East Coast except in Florida, where a small, endangered group of panthers still roams the Everglades.
"If there is a wild population, it is very tiny, and they are able to live and die without any evidence of them being here," Mr. Straw says.
Hunters do not stumble across the remains of dead mountain lions in the woods, he says. Cars do not kill or injure cougars crossing roads. The animals, which weight between 90 and 160 pounds and range over a large territory for food, have not left tracks that could be verified by wildlife experts.
Any cougars in Maryland -- including the one reported to be stalking the field off Liberty Road in Randallstown -- were probably being held captive and either escaped or were set free, Mr. Straw says.
But John Lutz, a cougar buff who runs a Baltimore-based group called the Eastern Puma Research Network, says there are at least 100 wild mountain lions roaming Maryland. There are hundreds more throughout the East Coast, he and other naturalists believe.
"They never left," Mr. Lutz argues. "They were nearly exterminated by the early 1900s, but they retreated into the wild."
Now man is encroaching into more remote parts of the state, forcing the cougars out of their hiding places, Mr. Lutz says. Last year he recorded 11 cougar sightings in Maryland, 38 in Pennsylvania and six in Virginia.
Another cougar buff, zoologist Donald Linzey, has collected 250 reports of mountain lions in Virginia over 11 years and believes 85 are credible. Among them was a forestry technician who came across a female cougar nursing two cubs in remote part of the Thomas Jefferson National Forest.
Sightings are certainly nothing new in Maryland.
In 1966, an animal believed to be a cougar clawed a pony, two sheep and a calf to death in western Harford County. The same year, The Sun ran a story headlined "A Mysterious Big Cat Roams Maryland," which focused on a flurry of cougar reports in Western Maryland.
Mountain lions also were reportedly sighted in Cape St. Claire in 1969, Kingsville in 1971 and several areas of Prince George's County in 1988.
"I believe that they're there," says a Baltimore County police officer, who claims he saw a cougar in Ruxton in 1980.
The policeman, who didn't want to be identified, says he was on his way home from work about 3 a.m. when the cougar crossed Circle Road in an wooded area adjacent to Robert E. Lee Memorial Park.
He caught the animal in his headlights and, at first, thought it was a large Labrador retriever. Then he realized from the length of its tail and the shape of its body that it was a mountain lion.
"I knew a lot of people wouldn't believe I'd seen it," he says.
He tells the story of a friend who managed to snap a picture of a cougar prowling in his backyard in Phoenix. The friend showed the photograph to a Baltimore County animal control officer and asked him to identify the animal.
"It's a mountain lion," the officer said. "Where'd you take the picture?"
"In my backyard," the man replied.
"Oh," said the officer, "then it isn't a mountain lion."