With no carcass, DNA sample or authentic photograph to prove the existence of a self-sustaining population, DEP biologist Paul Rego said virtually all of the reports can be confirmed as what the state calls "negative verifications" to other animals: coyotes, bobcats and even domestic pets.
Yet those who tell big cat stories find sympathy, similar tales and even conspiracy theories as to why the state refuses to acknowledge the possibility.
"I've seen lots of bobcats ... I know the difference," said Morris resident Barbara A. Aurell, who claims she saw a big cat with a long tail walking through her yard about 12 years ago in the Lakeside section of town. She saw another, darker cat on Curtis Hill Road in Morris.
"There are people I trust, old-timers like me who are natives and who know what they are talking about and are treated by state officials as ignorant," Aurell said. "I don't understand why the DEP won't acknowledge that they are here."
In Goshen, DaVino-Garcia rehabilitates neglected horses with her husband, Robert, at the farm she calls Spur of the Moment Ranch and Haven. Bandit wasn't the first victim of an attack. Another quarter horse, Shorty, was injured in an attack three weeks earlier. The injuries to Bandit were more severe. He has been limping and has lost 200 pounds since the attack, DaVino-Garcia said.
DaVino-Garcia said she told her story to a DEP officer who came to inspect the wounded horse. A native of Arizona, DaVino-Garcia said she knows all about mountain lions.
"There was quite a bit of skepticism about her report," said biologist Rego, who wasn't the investigator. "The wounds could have been from other causes, maybe barbed wire punctures. There is a remote possibility that it was caused by a coyote, bobcat or bear."