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Was late-night Alexandria prowler a cougar?

A paw print in the snow shows uneven spacing of the toes and partial overlapping, which is typical for cougars. Contributed photo.

When Rick Jones of Alexandria stepped outside his house at 5:30 a.m. on March 3, he noticed a set of animal tracks in the newly fallen snow right off his front steps.

He noticed their unusual shape and how closely the paws were set together on each set of prints.

And then he noticed the gait - how the hind foot landed ahead of the front foot and the long gap between each set of prints.

"I immediately froze," Jones said. "I realized this wasn't a dog - it was a big cat."

By big cat, Jones means cougar.

Turn out there may have been two of them. The tracks were all over his yard, the first house north of Eddy's Interlachen Inn along County Road 42.

The animals that made them had even been in his garage and dumped a trash can over, eating some of the food out of it.

One set of tracks came into the yard from behind Interlachen, passed the Dumpster in the parking lot and crossed into the yard while the other set came in from the front of the restaurant.

When they left his property, the animals split up again - one headed east toward County Road 120 while the other proceeded north, up County Road 42 and crossed into the timber to the east.

Jones called the Department of Natural Resources and an officer stopped by to look at the tracks. The officer couldn't confirm if they'd been left by a cougar and instead suggested it could have been a big dog.

"But it would've had to have been a huge dog - a monster dog," Jones said. "Even he [the officer] wasn't fully convinced it was a dog when he left."

During the past 30 years, cougars have wandered into Minnesota from time to time but DNR biologists doubt there has ever been more than a couple of them in the state at one time, according to the DNR website.

The Minnesota DNR has verified 14 cougar sightings in Minnesota in the last four years.

Jones doesn't have any pure evidence for his cougar theory. He's never spotted one in the area but he's done some research on the tracks and the more he studies, the more sure he is that they were left by a couple of cougars.

Exhibit one is the paw track.

Unlike typical dog tracks, which have large toes, rounded heels and near perfect symmetry in both the front and rear tracks, the tracks left on Jones' yard are non-symmetrical, shaped like a tear-drop, with widely spaced toes and one toe that's positioned ahead of the others. Just like a cougar.

The tracks on Jones' yard indicate another cougar characteristic - a "direct register," where the hind feet step inside of where the front feet land.

Jones took a lot of photos of the tracks. But other than that, he has no proof of what was prowling outside his home late at night.

He does, however, have a guess: He's heard that cougars, which are plentiful in the western Dakotas, have been spotted more and more in these parts because of all the drilling that's taking place in the western North Dakota oil patch.

"They're on the move - and they're hungry," Jones said.