Authorities have found no evidence to confirm a lion was out on the prowl on Ga. 60 early Tuesday morning after a motorist reported seeing just that.
Then again, there’s nothing to prove one wasn’t.
Officials say one thing’s for sure: If a golden-brown lion was strutting down the side of the road in the predawn hours near the Hall-Lumpkin county line, as a northbound driver reported to sheriff’s officials, it wasn’t native to this area. If it escaped from captivity, it wasn’t owned legally.
The report stirred sheriff’s officials in Hall and Lumpkin counties enough to conduct a search of the area with several deputies, and the owner of a nearby animal preserve was quickly contacted to make sure he had no escapees on the loose.
The Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, a facility off Ga. 115 that houses a number of exotic big cats, is about five miles from where the motorist said he saw the animal.
All the preserve’s animals, including two lions and five tigers, were accounted for, said Chestatee Wildlife Preserve owner C.W. Wathen.
Wathen said he went out with sheriff’s officials before dawn, armed with a tranquilizer gun, in case there was anything to the reported sighting.
"We didn’t see any signs" of a lion, Wathen said, but added that obvious indications such as paw prints aren’t always found. Wathen said the witness described the animal as being at least 6 feet in length. The animal did not have a mane, according to the witness.
Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said the witness was "adamant" that the creature he saw was a lion. The man did not stop his car but called sheriff’s officials after reaching his destination shortly before 5 a.m.
The report followed a sighting about two weeks ago in the Lawton Drive area off Sardis Road, where two people seemed certain they spotted a mountain lion roaming undeveloped property near a tract of woods.
State wildlife officials occasionally field reports from people who believe they’ve seen a mountain lion, also known as a cougar, according to Ken Riddleberger, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ area supervisor for game management in the wildlife resources division. There are no populations of mountain lions in Georgia, or for that matter anywhere in the Southeast, with the exception of Florida panthers, Riddleberger said.
Many times folks may be mistaking bobcats, large dogs or even house cats for lions, if they’re seeing them a distance.
Still, Riddleberger isn’t ready to dismiss the latest report out of hand.
"You never know what people might see," Riddleberger said. "I wouldn’t discount it immediately. Some people may have certain animals in their possession, legally or illegally."
"We know we don’t have any wild populations of large cats in Georgia," Riddleberger said. "If there’s a large cat, it’s an escapee that someone has illegally."
In Georgia, owning any big cat like a lion or tiger as a pet is illegal, Riddleberger said.
Wathen, who is licensed to own his big cats, agrees that a reported lion sighting can’t be automatically discounted.
"You never know, someone could be traveling with one or have one illegally," he said.
Mountain lions, which continue to thrive in western states, haven’t had natural habitats in the Southeast since the early 20th century, when they were wiped out by farmers who didn’t want their livestock endangered.
Much smaller bobcats, however, are fairly common. These wild cats, which average 30 to 35 pounds, are seldom seen, since they’re nocturnal and don’t tolerate humans well, Riddleberger said.
Wathen acknowledged that people sometimes mistake smaller wild cats such as bobcats for bigger animals, but said folks should "still be on the lookout."
"We’re all concerned here," Wathen said Tuesday. "We’re still loaded up and ready in case we’re called out."