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Lion talk continues, but no evidence yet

POSTED: June 16, 2009 11:54 p.m.

Somebody start selling souvenirs — mountain lion mania has hit Hall County.

Reports of a big, lion-like cat roaming the area have nearly everybody talking, but the talk has not turned up any physical evidence to help wildlife officials track the animal.

In the past month, four sightings of a large cat reported within eight square miles of each other have left Department of Natural Resources officials with no leads and pattern by which to track the animal if it exists, said Ken Riddleberger, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ area supervisor for game management in the wildlife resources division.

The most recent sighting occurred Saturday in Lumpkin County, and two sightings were reported within two miles of each other, Riddleberger said. Still, wildlife officials say their searches for the elusive cat have not been successful.

"We’re just trying to investigate to see what ... they saw and just keep following it and maybe we can get some kind of pattern," Riddleberger said.

Wildlife officials set traps last week, but to no avail.

"They were out there for three days and nothing even went near them," Riddleberger said.

The most DNR can gather is there may be "some kind of a big cat" roaming the area. Most people who have seen it describe the cat as a lion, but no one knows, however, if they saw an African lion or a mountain lion. A resident of the Mount Vernon Preserve swears he and his wife saw the large, golden cat in their neighbor’s yard last week.

The man, who said he did not want to be named in this article because he said he is "not one of those UFO guys," said he still cannot believe his eyes.

"I saw the damn thing. My wife saw it. And then the guy from the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve said they picked up big cat poop next to my neighbor’s house and I still don’t believe it," the man said.

Riddleberger confirmed that he took photographs of a pile of feces found by W.C. Wathen, owner of the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, but said the "evidence" likely was not left behind by a large cat.

"We did pick up some, but it don’t look like it was deposited by a big cat," Riddleberger said.

In all the mountain lion mania, anything out of the ordinary gets blamed on the enigmatic cat.

Authorities say they have responded to multiple calls of activity residents initially think is lion-related. But a report of ransacked garbage and big paw prints turned up evidence of a bear instead of a lion.

Ten dead chickens were probably the victims of a pack of dogs, Riddleberger said.

Some Murrayville neighbors even say their house cats have gone missing, according to Chad Hamilton, whose wife reported the Gearin Road lion sighting to authorities last week.

Hamilton said his uncle found his cat had been mutilated by another animal. Hamilton also said he has seen for himself spots in his cow pasture where it looks like a large animal laid down and ate something, leaving behind traces of hair and blood.

"You can tell a difference between cat hair and cow hair," Hamilton said.

If a lion were hungry enough, it might eat a house cat, but there are more preferable dining options for a big cat in the woods of Hall and Lumpkin counties, Wathen said.

"I can’t see either way, whether it’s an African lion or a mountain lion, it taking out cats," Wathen said. "There’s too much other (food) out there right now for the big cats to feed on. Fawns are being born. There are cattle with new calves in the vicinity ... they would take out first something like that."

Riddleberger said there have been no official reports of attacked livestock in the area, and the origins and whereabouts of the big cat remain shrouded in mystery.

"It could be anywhere, or it could not be anywhere — you just don’t know," said Robin Hill, DNR’s public affairs program manager.

Although wildlife officials have not been able to pinpoint if the animal is real and where it might be, they know one thing for sure — if the animal is what residents say it is, it was probably an illegally owned pet.

All the legally owned lions and tigers have been accounted for, officials say. The two lions and five tigers living in the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve are still at home, a fact that’s been verified by both Wathen and DNR, Wathen said.

"I don’t know what people have seen, but it doesn’t surprise me that someone might have had an illegal big cat as a pet," Riddleberger said.

Some people like to think they can make pets of large cats, and they are wrong in that assumption, said Rick Aiken, president of the Humane Society of Hall County. Aiken spent more than 10 years working with big cats at Lion Country Safari and other zoos across the Southeast, and said during that time he received calls from people wanting to purchase the large cats.

"You never, ever can trust them," Aiken said. "You can’t breed thousands and thousands of years of instinct out of them in that short of time."

For now, wildlife officials say they are waiting for another call, and another clue, to move forward with their investigation of the mysterious mountain — or African — lion.

Wathen is on call 24 hours a day, waiting with his tranquilizer gun to help wildlife officials if there is another report of a big cat roaming the area.

"We’ve got everything in our vehicles ready to go out," Wathen said.

Residents who have seen the cat say they, too, are waiting for someone else to report a sighting of the animal, if only to prove that they were not hallucinating when they saw a big, gold cat roaming through their neighborhoods.

"I’m just waiting for someone else to see it again or it to get hit by a car," said the man who reportedly saw the cat in the Mount Vernon Preserve area.

Wildlife officials advise anyone else who sees the cat to try to get a good description of it and the area it is in and call the sheriff’s office immediately.

Until then, those who have witnessed it are staying cautious.

"We’re certainly keeping an eye on the kids," said the Mount Vernon Preserve resident. "It’s big enough to be dangerous, I know that."



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