Multiple sightings of what animal control officials are calling “possibly a cougar” have authorities in Fairfax County on high alert.
Officials received two reports this week of a “large cat” with an orange-tinted coat in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County near Riverside Elementary School.
Two school employees described the animal as the size of a large dog with a sand- or orange-colored coat and long tail, making “cat-like or feline” movements.
Animal control officers searched the area for a cougar — also known as a mountain lion. Cameras were set up on Old Mount Vernon Road in an attempt to capture images of the animal, but there had been no new sightings as of early Friday afternoon.
The school employees spotted the animal Wednesday and Thursday, Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre said. Police officials said both sightings occurred in the morning.
Teachers and parents at the school were alerted, and outdoor recess was canceled. Torre said school authorities will decide Monday whether it is again safe for children to play outside on school grounds.
Martin Miller, chief of the endangered species division for the Northeast region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said many reports of cougar sightings turn out to be false.
Agencies must balance the need to protect the public in case a sighting is accurate, against the risk of needlessly scaring people or disrupting their routines, Miller said.
“Everyone who saw it, swears they saw one,” Miller said. But even if an animal has really been spotted, it is not necessarily a cougar. “A bobcat or a house cat or a dog or even a white-tailed deer — things like that,” Miller said.
Katherine Edwards, wildlife management specialist for the Fairfax police, said video footage from Thursday night revealed only “white-tailed deer, animal control officers and school security” personnel.
Most often, officials said, a confirmed cougar sighting turns out to be an escaped or released mountain lion.
Miller said authorities can tell if an animal has lived in captivity by its diet, the pads on its feet, tattoos in its mouth or neck fur missing because of a collar.
Eastern cougars, a subspecies of the animal, were last seen around the 1920s and confirmed extinct in 2011.
But other subspecies roam the nation. In fact, the population of western cougars has increased so much in recent years that young males are often forced out of their territories by competing males, Miller said.
Edwards said even though occasional sightings occur in Virginia, sightings are rare within Fairfax County.
“We do take it seriously, and we’re trying to get the word out in an abundance of caution,” said Lucy Caldwell, a Fairfax County police spokeswoman. She added that officials plan to keep cameras posted in the area until they believe the animal has left.
If you see what you believe to be a cougar, authorities ask that you do not approach it.
Police said observers should get to a safe location and call the police non-emergency number, 703-691-2131. An animal control officer will be dispatched.