The most recent sighting of the animal came Friday morning, when it was spotted by a resident in a neighbor's backyard. The resident, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he's concerned people would think he is trying to get publicity for his retail business in Greenport, described the animal as about five feet long with a long tail. It was light brown in color, he said. By the time he could retrieve his cell phone to take a photo of it, the animal had disappeared into the wooded area behind his neighbor's home, he said.
"It was definitely a cat," John said. "It walked like a cat."
He called the town, he said, and was connected with animal control, which set a trap at the edge of his property near the neighbor's yard where he saw the animal.
"It's trapped a couple of raccoons so far," said John's wife, Denise.
"It's not big enough to trap the animal I saw," John said of the trap.
North Fork Animal Welfare League shelter director Gillian Wood-Pultz, who placed the trap, said it was the largest cage she had, made for a large dog. She filled it with "stinky cat food" to try to attract the mountain lion, she said.
Apparently, the animal began its sojourn on the East End several months ago, when it was spotted by several people in Quogue, Ms. Pultz said. She has alerted Wildlife Rescue in Quogue about the North Fork sightings and, if the anima l is caught here, she will call agents from Wildlife Rescue, who will come here to tranquilize the cat and return it to the Quogue headquarters. From there, the cat would likely be placed in an animal refuge site elsewhere in the country, Ms. Pultz said.
Southold Police Chief Carlisle Cochran said his officers would only act to kill the animal if it were an immediate threat to a human being. The first report police received came from Ms. Pultz, who had received a call from neighbors last Thursday.
John said he believes the large cat is a mountain lion. "I'm a hunter," he said. "Though I've never seen one in person, I saw pictures of it on the Internet."
The animal, whatever it is, has apparently been roaming the neighborhood for the past couple of months. Ms. Pultz said it's not unusual for a mountain lion to wander around an area as large as 100 square miles.
Marisa Romeo, a weekend resident of Waterview Drive, said Monday she has seen the big cat near her home twice, the first time in early July, she said. But she didn't say anything about it to anyone.
"I was afraid people would think I was crazy," Ms. Romeo said outside her home on the quiet, wooded street off Main Bayview Road.
Then early one evening in late August, she saw the large animal again. It was in lying in the road in front of her neighbor's driveway, she said.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Ms. Romeo said. She was struck by the fact that there were "several deer eating right near it, so I figured it must be tame," she said. "The deer were not bothered by it." She paused, shook her head and said, "But it was a lion."
Mountain lions do feed on deer, Chief Cochran said. The animal -- also known as cougar, puma, panther and catamount -- is more typically found in Florida swamps, California mountains and Canadian forests, according to desertusa.com
They're nocturnal animals who hunt at night, according to a Web site. While they prefer wooded and rocky areas, they're also known to occupy open spaces.
With Halloween trick-or-treating coming up, area residents are concerned about the large animal roaming free, said resident Stacey Bishop, the mother of two. Ms. Bishop said security cameras on her home recently taped a large animal in her backyard, but she couldn't tell if it was a large dog or the big cat her neighbors have seen.
Both Chief Cochran and Ms. Pultz speculated that the mountain lion was someone's pet, since such cats aren't indigenous to this area, the shelter director said. She speculated that it had probably been declawed.
A person encountering a mountain shouldn't turn and run, as the cat is likely to give chase, according to the Web site. Instead, stay calm and face the animal and raise your arms so you appear larger, the site recommends. If the lion becomes aggressive, throw rocks, branches or whatever you have, but don't turn your back or bend over.
It's illegal in New York State to keep wild animals. The only exceptions are for owners who had possessed such animals before the law took effect in November, 2004. These owners are permitted to keep their animals until they die, provided the owner hasn't been convicted of any offense related to animal cruelty. Such owners were required to obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation within 60 days of the law taking effect and to renew the permit every other year. At the same time, the law provided that local municipalities could outlaw keeping wild animals as pets.
Last year Southold Town gave up its effort to define animals that couldn't be kept within its boundaries after a raucous Town Board meeting at which animal lovers and complaining neighbors argued for and against allowing various types of animals to be kept in the rural township.
By state law, owners of wild animals are prohibited from breeding them and must meet stringent rules for housing and caring for them.