PHANTOM PANTHERS IN SUBURBIA

Mysterious large felines are prowling streets in Michigan and Ohio and no one knows where they're coming from.

By (C) Ron Schaffner "I almost fainted when I saw it," Lillian Smith told police officers as she described her encounter with a hugh cat on December 2, 1984.

Cincinnati police received numerous calls all that weekend concerning a mountain lion alleged to be roaming around the community of North Avondale. The law-enforcement officials didn't know what to make of the sightings. "I have some doubts," Sgt. Alan Jones of District Four remarked, "but we have had a lot of reports from people and we are not discounting the stories."

Mrs. Smith claimed also to have seen the creature on friday, November 30. She said it was about seven feet away, under a car, and it made a "heavy roar."

Cincinnati Zoo spokesman and Hamilton County game Warden Mike Serio expressed skepticism of the accounts. Serio doubted that a panther could survive in a suburban environment, considering the lack of food necessary for a proper diet and the absence of reports of missing domestic animals.

But Samuel Snider, who is a nuisance-wildlife remover for the Ohio department of Natural resources, took the reports seriously enough so that on several consecutive nights he baited the area with fresh meat hoping to tranquilize and remove the animal. His attempts failed and the cat remained at large.

Paw prints approximately 2 1/2 to three inches in diameter were found near a high school but the Society for Prevention of cruelty to Animals could not positively identify them. Police said reports of the animal persisted for a couple of years.

Such reports of FELIS CONCOLOR, the scientific name for the animal known variously as panther, mountain lion or cougar, in the Midwest are not new. But are we to believe such cats are indigenous to the outskirts of major cities? When we think of suburban wildlife, we think rather of squirrels, rabbits and birds.

If a Cincinnati cougar is difficult to believe, consider the testimony of Craig Wadsworth, a Davison, Mich., truck driver who claims to have seen a black panther crossing the road just south of Flint, Mich., on december 3, 1984. "the cat stopped, looked at me in the cab of the truck, then scurried off into the darkness," Wadsworth said.

A large black feline has been reported within the Flint city limits since the summer of 1984. In August of that year employees of the Flint Fisher Body Plant saw a large dark cat in an alley across from the factory. William Routhier, one of the witnesses, said the cat had an extremely long tail. At least four other sightings were reported to police, but no animal was captured.

Lower Michigan has been having a panther problem for the past year. In fact, authorities believe that three or even four animals are prowling about the communities of Coloma, Manchester, Wixom and Grand rapids. Dozens of witnesses have reported seeing a cat or cats. Wildlife officials theorize that they are abandoned pets.

The panther scare began in late May 1984 in the village of Manchester, after police received four calls over a three day period. Some sightings were made by police and others by civilians. One witness told Police Chief William Zsenyuk that he saw a "catlike" black animal with pointed ears and a tail 2 1/2 to three feet long. It appeared to weigh between 100 and 150 pounds.

Various methods of capture have been tried without success. Hunters were equipped with tranquilizer guns and dogs to track the scent. The police department also searched using a Detroit police helicopter.

On Wednesday, July 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department delivered another type of trap to Chief Zsenyuk at a secret location - to keep reporters away. This trap consisted of reinforcing wire. This trap consisted of reinforcing wire. The cage was four feet high by four feet wide by eight feet long. Inside it was a smaller cage just big enough to house a chicken. If the cat walked in, it would step on a board that pulled a wire that closed the door. But the panther didn't fall for it.

A week earlier Zsenyuk was investigating an incident on another farm where the feline had made off with a rooster and a chicken. "I was following the feathers and the farmer was walking behind me," he said. "It appeared the trail was doubling back. As we were standing there, the cat let out a scream. Then the chicken came stumbling out of the weeds minus tail feathers."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Don Burger thinks the animal was probably a black leopard. he bases his opinion on his own sighting, made through a night scope on June 6, of what he took to be a 100-pound female.

By the end of June attention began to focus on Wixom, Mich., in western Oakland County.

On July 11, at 4:00 a.m., as Rhonda Marshall was delivering newspapers, she turned onto a street and her headlights illuminated a panther lying in the grass. Marshall said it was much larger than a German shepherd.

On July 12 at 11:00 a.m. Ken St. Jean saw a large cat running through the property of a paving company. He was atop an asphalt plant loading blacktop onto a truck. "I've got a 360- degree view," he said. "I happened to be looking straight forward when it ran across the driveway in a slow stance, kind of prancing. I only saw it for six or seven seconds. The cat loped past, made an easy leap over a fence that is nearly eight feet high, if you count the barbed wire at the top, and then it moved on into the woods."

Wixom Police Sgt. Vern Darlington spotted a five-foot-long cat on Saturday night, July 14. It was resting near the runway of Spencer Airport. Authorities said it was the 10th report in the Wixom area and the 14th report of the Manchester cat.

Agents from Wixom, Manchester and the Wildlife Department met to discuss a means of capturing the animal. they were concerned that someone might shoot at and wound the animal, which could turn it into a dangerous beast. Everyone agreed it was likely that more than one cat was involved. The witnesses were describing animals of different sizes; moreover, there had been reports in two different areas at the same time.

Then on July 17 two soft-drink deliverymen in Coloma, in southwestern Michigan, saw a medium-sized "cougar" near a supermarket. The next day two women sighted a huge cat running across a lawn, just east of the city.

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Reports of these out-of-place panthers are not nearly so rare as one might think. Recently, when I asked officers of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources if they ever receive such reports, they admitted that they get them weekly, but because they don't believe them, they pay no attention to them.

Karl Bednarik of the Crane Creek Wildlife Experimental Station wrote me on November 19, 1984:

I know of no modern day, authentic, documented reports of cougars (Felis Concolor) in Ohio. Dr. Milton B. Trautman, Professor Emertius, Department of Zoology, Ohio State, in his paper "The Numerical Status of Some Animals Throughout Historical Time in the Vicinity of Buckeye Lake, Ohio" (Ohio Journal of Science, 1939, 39:1433-43) stated, "Panthers....are frequently referred to in the literature, but generally it is not clear whether the name 'panthers' refers to this species, or the bobcat. The cougar was in the general vicinity of the area in 1805 and was probably in the Great and Bloody Run swamps for several years thereafter....In the autumn of 1805, Jacob Wilson, who was then living within a mile of Newark, treed with his dogs and then killed a 'huge panther' that had previously raided his pig pen and carried away a pig." Dr. Trautman further stated that the cougar had probably been extirpated from Ohio by 1850. ("The Ohio Country from 1750 to 1977 - A Naturalist's View," 1978, OHIO BIOLOGICAL SURVEY, BIOLOGICAL NOTES NO. 10:6.)

But Michigan investigator Wayne King is convinced that residents of his state have been seeing cougars. He thinks the description of the animals as "black" has to do with the fact that cougars' coats turn to a chocolate brown with the advent of winter. Another factor that could have caused the animals to appear darker than they were is that many sightings occurred in dark and wet conditions.

Whatever the truth, these and other reports of large cats surely merit more attention from scientists and wildlife authorities than they are receiving.

FATE Magazine; May, 1985