When it comes to creepy creatures, Pennsylvania doesn't hold a candle to other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest has Bigfoot, New Mexico has space aliens and Puerto Rico is home to the fearsome chupacabra, a grotesque monster that supposedly sucks the blood out of livestock.
What Pennsylvania does have, however, is a seemingly endless fascination with mountain lions. Call it the Nittany Lion effect, but it's clear there are thousands of residents who truly believe there are cougars among us.
Of course, unlike Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and other legends relegated to cryptozoology, mountain lions are very real animals that can be found in many areas of North America. There's just no good reason to believe they really exist in Penn's Woods.
Pennsylvania's last known pair of wild mountain lions was killed near Lock Haven, Clinton County, in 1871. A mountain lion was killed by a hunter in Potter County in 1967, but the commission said that animal was an escaped pet.
Still, the overwhelming absence of proof has done little to discourage residents from submitting dozens of mountain lion sightings to the Pennsylvania Game Commission each year. Cal DuBrock, director of the commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the number of reports seems to have hit an all-time high in recent months.
"I can't recall a time when we've had more," DuBrock said. "Yet we don't have a carcass in hand or any tangible evidence."
DuBrock said the commission has always investigated mountain lion sightings. But up until now, the agency didn't have an official protocol for responding to them, keeping track of how many reports were received or where they came from.
Starting this month, commission officials who respond to mountain lion reports will collect a standard set of information, including eyewitness accounts, photographs, videos and any physical evidence such as hair, tracks and scat.
"We'll be able to quantify the reports, and, in a sense, qualify them," DuBrock said.
Just because the commission has developed a standard method for tracking lion sightings doesn't mean officials believe the animals are here. In fact, DuBrock said the new procedures were created largely out of frustration about how much time agency employees have wasted following up reports that lead nowhere.
In the past, the commission has received photographs, videotapes, tracks and scat from a variety of animals — including bobcats, housecats, foxes, fishers, coyotes and bears — that people thought were mountain lions.
Despite that, commission officials don't completely rule out the possibility that a mountain lion or two may be roaming around out there. But if they are, officials can't understand why a cougar hasn't been shot or killed on a highway.
In Florida, for example, where a remnant population of about 100 endangered panthers remains, as many as 10 of the big cats are struck by vehicles each year. And here in Pennsylvania, DuBrock said, between 100 and 200 bobcats are road-killed each year, along with more than 300 bears.
"People must be scarfing up the mountain lions when they're hit," DuBrock joked.
All kidding aside, DuBrock said he believes the commission's new methods will go a long way to either debunking the mountain lion myth or collecting the kind of hard evidence that has been so elusive for so long.
"We're not looking for more accounts. We're looking for more credible accounts," DuBrock said. "There are some who are attempting to perpetuate a hoax, but there are many people of high integrity who are seeing something ."
Determining exactly what, however, often proves impossible.
"Sometimes," DuBrock said, "you just feel like you're chasing the wind."