Fisher cats in South Jersey? Unlikely, officials say

Posted: June 15, 2014

About a year ago, something was killing the chickens Mike Dugan had roaming his property in the Delair section of Pennsauken.

One morning last summer, his girlfriend, Allison Rosenfeld, and a friend spied a mystery critter.

"We were like, 'What the heck is that?' " Rosenfeld, 43, said. "It moved like a rat, but larger. It moved like a mean animal."

When it saw them, it turned bushy-tail and ran, she said.

Later, an Internet search led them to an animal called a fisher cat.

Flash-forward to about a week ago. Word of possible fisher sightings in Pennsauken began circulating on social media.

"We were like, 'Wow,' " landscaper Dugan, 48, said.

Whether this weasel relative is or is not prowling this part of South Jersey - and local and wildlife officials tend to think not - the fisher cat story, as they say, has legs.

"It's capturing either the imagination or the interest of residents," Pennsauken Township spokesman Frank Sinatra said.

"People have been joking it's Pennsauken's version of Bigfoot," he said.

A link from the township's Facebook page to a fisher cat update on the township's website got more than 4,000 hits in less than a day - the second-highest in the site's history, Sinatra said. The average is between 180 and 400.

That said, the post says that between what township officials have been told by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife and the lack of evidence, it is unlikely a fisher is lurking.

Except for a call from a woman who didn't leave her number, neither the police, Fire Department, nor animal control office have been asked to respond to possible sightings.

"We're doing our due diligence, but you'd think there would be some evidence," Sinatra said.

"In this age of social media where people are taking pictures of their lunch, you'd think someone could quickly snap a picture or shoot a video," he said.

George Garbaravage, the state wildlife technician who advised Pennsauken, said his agency gets about four or five calls a year from South Jerseyans who think they have seen a fisher. When they have sent photos, the animal has turned out to be a river otter, he said.

The state also gets calls on the screaming sound associated with fishers.

Around these parts, he said, that's probably a red fox pup calling for its mother.

Although fishers have been confirmed in North Jersey and reported as far south as Hopewell in the last several years, Garbaravage said, the animals prefer more mountainous terrain than South Jersey has to offer.

Even if a fisher were around, he also doubted it would go after people's pets this time of year when other prey like rodents is so plentiful.

Not that fishers aren't up to the task. Reports from other locales have them attacking dogs and cats and even larger animals. Fishers have been known to be fast and fierce, just about the only animal that regularly preys on porcupines.

Still, Cheryl Trewella, Pennsylvania Game Commission information and education supervisor for the southeast region, said she was not aware of complaints about fishers attacking pets.

In 20 years, the animal has made a substantial comeback in Pennsylvania after having been killed off in large part by deforestation during the 19th century, Trewella said. By the early 20th century, the fisher was gone from the state.

Over time, some of the forests grew back, and from 1994 to 1998, the state imported about 190 fishers and released them mostly in the north-central region, Trewella said.

Except for the far southeastern part of the state, fishers are now found throughout Pennsylvania, she said, including Berks County and possibly upper Bucks.

There's even a fisher trapping season; this year, it's Dec. 20 to 25.

Suburban legend or not, as word of the possibility of fishers in South Jersey has spread, more people have given second thoughts to things they have seen and heard.

Martha Donohoe, 54, visiting the area from California, recently saw an animal - big, brown, with "very beautiful fur" - near the creek in Haddon Heights Park.

At first, she thought it was a beaver, but "its tail was not flat. It seemed to be bushy."

Then she saw an article about fisher cats.

"I said, 'That's more like the tail I saw.' "

Ralph Pepe, 69, of Cinnaminson, was on his boat fishing for striped bass in the Rancocas Creek in May 2013 when he heard a rustling in the reeds.

"This was accompanied by some god-awful sounds which I have never heard before," the retired bank examiner said.

He said he read about the fisher cat in The Inquirer and did some research.

"The sounds I heard were identical - although much louder - than those on the [YouTube] video," he said.

Dugan and Rosenfeld can't say for sure whether the animal she saw was what killed his chickens, but they believe the critter was a fisher.

Last winter, Rosenfeld said, she heard what sounded like a child screaming, although no children live close to them, she said.

"I said to him, 'I'm really concerned that someone is beating a child,' " she said.

After the recent posts appeared, she did some research and came to the same conclusion as Pepe.

She thinks she heard a fisher cat.


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893

@ritagiordano

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