Mountain Lion Mania and the Internet
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 28, 2007.)
"A mountain lion was spotted and photographed near Jamestown, New York!"
The animal is the living, snarling real McCoy.
Clearly, the animal in all four photos is a true mountain lion.
"Really?" you say. "Maybe that's the one somebody saw in Lander!"
Four close-up pictures of a mountain lion are circulating on the Internet. The lion stood on the patio deck of a home, and was looking into the house through a glass door. The animal is unmistakable. There is no doubt that it is a mountain lion. The photos were taken on February 17, 2007, the story goes, at a house on a particular road in Chautauqua County in the Busti, New York area.
With clear photos and specific details, you'd think there must be something to the story. And after all, pictures don't lie, right? And with photographic documentation, who's to argue?
Me. I'll take issue with it, and try to separate true from false.
Fact number one: the photos are real. They have not been "PhotoShopped," or doctored in any way.
Fact number two: the animal is the living, snarling real McCoy. Clearly, the animal in all four photos is a true mountain lion. No one can credibly suggest that it is a bobcat, a coyote, a deer, a barn cat, a yellow Labrador retriever, or any other animal that is sometimes mistaken for a mountain lion.
That much is true. But these photos were not taken on February 17, 2007. They were taken more than three years ago. How do I know that? I know because that information is embedded in the photos.
With digital photography, the camera records lots of information right along with each image. It documents the brand and model of the camera, exposure time, ISO speed, whether the flash was used, and dozens of other bits of information including the date and time of each photo. The photos I received by email are dated March 10, 2004 at 7:15 AM. (And they were taken with a Nikon camera.)
Couldn't the date and time settings in the camera have been incorrectly set? Yes, that's possible, but it doesn't change the fact that these are not recent photos because I have seen them before. Several times. They have been circulating on the Internet for at least three years. So, do the math. They were definitely not taken on February 17, or any time near that.
Nor were they taken in the Busti, New York area. How do I know that?
Internet hoaxes are prolific, and the computer user who has not been fooled at least once or twice is rare. Any time a story that's a stretch pops up on our computer screens, we ought to be suspicious. Whether it's a UFO, a mermaid, or proof of Bigfoot, start with doubt. Or at least a little skepticism, as the people in the email trail that reached me exhibited.
A quick visit to any one of several scam-busting Internet sites can help you to separate fact from fiction in the endless onslaught of emails. One of the sites is called www.snopes.com.
What does Snopes say about these photos? The pictures are real, but through the years people have claimed that they come from South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and several other states.
What is the truth? It turns out that these widely circulated photos were in fact taken in Lander by Dr. David Rogers at his home there. Lander is a couple of hours north of Interstate 80, but it's not the Lander you're probably thinking of. It's the Lander that is 1,713 miles away from Lander, Pennsylvania, in the middle of Wyoming.
Have I disproved the existence of a Chautauqua County mountain lion? Or any mountain lion reported in this area recently? Absolutely not. All I can say is that the photographs on the Internet have nothing to do with any local sightings.
I have a friend who told me he saw a lion last fall while spotting deer in Scandia, just before deer season. Could be. It's the type of thing that's hard to believe unless you've seen it yourself. So for now, whether mountain lions live in our neck of the woods remains an unsolved mystery.