OXFORD – After a rash of reported sightings of cougars this summer from Oxford to Sidney, there’s no doubt in the minds of Maine Warden Service Major Gregg Sanborn or service spokesman Mark Latti that a cougar or two might be in Maine.

The catch, however, is that both suspect the alleged mountain lions, pumas or panthers, as these big cats are also called, were probably trucked in from out of state as pets that either escaped or were freed.

“It’s very possible and it wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Sanborn said by phone late Thursday afternoon in Augusta. “Of course, it would be illegal and very hard to prove. But the loser of this is the animal. It’s being kept out in captivity and then turned loose, so it’s going to eat whatever’s easiest, like garbage from garbage cans or pet cats.”

“Could there be a single mountain lion, puma or panther here? Certainly,” Latti said by phone Tuesday in Augusta. “But it could be either an escaped pet or one that someone brought to Maine and couldn’t care for it and let it go.

“We know we don’t have a native population of mountain lions, or we’d be seeing plenty of evidence out there like deer kills, reports from hunters or trappers, or even road kills. But it’s just not happening.”

Importing a mountain lion or any other non-native wildlife, bird, amphibian or fish species into Maine without first getting a permit, or possessing species considered to be exotic without a permit are Class E misdemeanor crimes punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $2,000, and substantial jail time, Sanborn said.

“It’s quite a big deal. We get numerous requests from people who want to bring their exotic animals to the state of Maine, animals that may be native to Florida and other states but not here. We run into it frequently,” Sanborn said.

Last year, wardens removed huge snakes from a trailer that were in Maine illegally, and Warden Neal Wykes took a three-foot alligator found in Maine Audubon’s farm pond in Falmouth and gave it to the York Wild Animal Kingdom Zoo. Another alligator about the same size was discovered in 2000 in Kennebunkport, Latti said.

“When we get wind that someone’s got exotics, we try to go and bring them into compliance. Most of the time, it’s ignorance. People go to an animal pet store in New Jersey, get something, put it in their VW microvan and drive to Maine. We explain the situation to them and say, ‘These are your choices, either take it back to the pet store or, here’s your warning. It’s going to cost you big dollars.’ People don’t realize that trade in wildlife is a big business, but we have to take it serious,” Sanborn said.

To legally bring exotic critters into Maine, people must either be involved in professional husbandry, like the owners of the York Wild Animal Kingdom Zoo; or research, like that done at Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor, the world’s largest mammalian genetic research facility; or for therapy, because it benefits a person, he said.

Additionally, the critter must usually be on Maine’s list of allowed exotic species, a list that is currently being revamped.

Although mountain lions have yet to be found in Maine or documented through photography, reports of sightings annually top any other non-native animal, Latti said.

“Most cougar sightings are quickly resolved as bobcats and even big house cats. I remember a time in the middle of the winter when I saw a 40-pound bobcat feeding on fresh road-killed deer in a ditch beside the interstate. It was a gorgeous bobcat. Two hours later, we got a report of a mountain lion sighted on the interstate there, and I knew exactly what it was,” Sanborn said.

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