Cougar Owner Pits Her Against Doberman
The way Gloria Minie remembers it, the mountain lion spit and growled at her. She was the town manager of Stratford at the time, and one day a man with a mountain lion on a leash traipsed into her office. Apparently, Dash, the lion, was trying to convince her that, despite what his neighbors she was a very friendly animal.
Other town officials popped their heads into her office to get a glimpse of it. One of the town attorneys was wearing a strong aftershave lotion, Minie remembers, which really set the cat off.
“I didn’t care for it and I sympathized with the people,” Minie said.
Dwight Bernheimer, the owner, remembers it differently. According to him, Dash walked into the office and summarily curled up on the throw rug under Minie’s desk and fell asleep. She woke up when the town officials filtered in, and they loved her.
“(Minie) admitted, in front of the town attorney, that `at this time and this place the animal is very calm and gentle,'” Bernheimer said. “By the way, mountain lions don’t growl.”
Since a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Milford on June 11 alleged mountain lion sightings have been a hot topic around Fairfield County as reported sightings have been increasing. State officials say the dead mountain lion was most likely released from captivity, but where exactly it came from they are still trying to determine.
More than 20 years ago, Bridgeport and Stratford residents got riled up much the same way about Bernheimer’s mountain lion. Mountain lions, like all wild cats, have been banned as domestic pets since 1967 but Bernheimer had a state and federal permits allowing him to keep Dash. But keeping Dash was a constant battle. Bernheimer said for the six years he owned the lion, he was hounded by mayors, first selectmen and police who worried the cat would hurt someone.
His relationship with Dash all began when the freelance videographer was filming a commercial for local Lincoln dealerships in 1979 and an animal handler charged him $750 to use his mountain lion. When Bernheimer complained about the price, the owner suggested he get his own. So he did. He called around, located a wild animal park in Florida, and was promised a female mountain lion. Dash was the runt of the litter and wasn’t expected to live long. She ended up growing to 114 pounds and was the largest captive mountain lion on the Florida record books.
When Bernheimer brought her to his Bridgeport home, he let her roam the house like he would any domestic house cat. He then moved to the Lordship neighborhood in Stratford for a couple years before returning to the Black Rock area of Bridgeport.
“In Lordship I was neighborhood babysitter,” said Bernheimer, who is now in his late 60s. “Kids would come over and ask to watch the cat. They would sit there for hours and play with the cat.”
Dash loved to swim. He would take her along in his ski boat at Indian Wells State Park in Derby and she would splash around in the water.
Bernheimer also walked Dash around the neighborhood and in Beardsley Park. He said one time another man challenged Dash to a fight against his own Doberman pincher. Dash won.
But Dash never hurt any human, Bernheimer said, except for the time a teenager broke into his house.
The teenager got halfway through a window before he was mauled by the cat.
A police officer called Bernheimer from the Bridgeport Hospital emergency room and told him the victim complained that he had been attacked by a big, yellow dog.
In 1982, Minie told Bernheimer he must put Dash in a cage and post a $1 million bond that would name the town government an insured party in case someone got mauled and sued the town.
“She has gone too far,” Bernheimer told the AP at the time. “I can’t see this animal leashed, caged and muzzled for 24 hours.”
After a court battle, Bernheimer proved he had proper permits for Dash and that he didn’t need to be caged.
Gary Gamble, 64, of Shelton, said he borrowed Dash sometimes. He called the cat Tina.
“I took it because it was nifty,” Gamble said. “I took it to shopping centers and everything. She would play with me like a cat. When I walked away, if she wasn’t ready to have me walk away, she would get on her rear legs and put her paws around my neck to make me stay. She was just starting to get a little aggressive when I gave her back.”
When Dash died in the mid-80s, Bernheimer was devastated. He never got another cat – domestic or wild.
Bernheimer says he’s not surprised by the recent sightings.
“They’re coming from upstate New York and Canada,” Bernheimer said. “They’ve been here since the beginning of time.”