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A Big Cat Report in Southern Ohio

Ohio's Miami Valley is not known for an abundance of cryptid sightings. The area surrounding Dayton is well populated and spotted only infrequently with remnant or replanted forests. There is still a good array of wildlife in the area, though. Deer and small mammals are common, the bird life is rich, and it's a rare hike when I can't find any signs of reptiles or amphibians. Because of human machinations, though, there just doesn't seem to be room for mystery animals.

Or so I thought, until I came across a short mention in the newspaper about a big cat seen south of Dayton. Within the next few days, more mention was given to it, but the information was scant. The Miami Township (Montgomery County) police were investigating a "tiger" sighted on May 27, 1994. A Centerville resident had videotaped the feline, but the image didn't show precise details. The general area was searched by police and Humane Society officials, but the search was called off after a week went by without results.

The final article gave the name of the primary witness and the conclusion of the police -- the "tiger" was a housecat. Why that particular answer? The witness had helped the police superimpose images of humans onto the tape to calculate the size, and the cops decided that it was not large enough to be "a tiger or cougar." The witness didn't agree, but the official "verdict" had been issued, and so the "tiger" was written off as a wandering domestic cat.

I had paid attention to the case, but wasn't particularly excited by it. After all, within the past year there had been at least two cases of pet tigers in the area escaping. Both had been rounded up. I didn't see any reason for this situation to be any different, thereby breaking one of my own "rules." (Never assume a situation is normal until you know all the facts.) I did have four clippings from the paper:

  • "Tiger on the loose." Dayton (OH) Daily News 5/27/94: B1.
  • Rodrigues, Janet. "Lions, tigers, and alligators? Oh, my!" Dayton (OH) Daily News 5/28/94: B1.
  • Babcock, Jim and Terrence L. Johnson. "Neither hide nor hair seen of 2 animals." Dayton (OH) Daily News 5/29/94: B1.
  • Hernandez, Carol. "Police drop tiger tale; man wary." Dayton (OH) Daily News 6/2/94: B1.

(The second critter mentioned above was a caiman that someone dumped into the Miami river. It hasn't been seen since.)

I decided to write a letter to the man who videotaped the cat, asking him to fill out a report form, but his address wasn't in the phone book. Rather than call directory assistance, (I wasn't in any particular hurry), I wrote to one of the reporters. She called me in a few days, letting me know that no further developments had occurred, and that she had thrown out the notes on the case, so she couldn't give me the witness' address.

I decided to go ahead and call the witness. A few details were nagging me about the police search, and I thought he might be able to clear things up. From that telephone interview, I gleaned several facts:

  • The "tiger" was actually a lioness or cougar. The media had jumped on that term, but the feline had no stripes (or mane), was orange-yellow, had a lion-like gait, and was approximately 2 1/2 feet high.
  • The cat was seen early in the morning, from an office window about 300 yards away. The cat was taller than the surrounding brush, and exhibited normal feline behavior (rolling around in the grass), before wandering off.
  • The police search bordered on the humorous: beating drums at night in the manner of the Indian maharajah-style tiger hunts, using night scopes, and setting out bait.
  • Four or five days after this sighting, an anonymous woman called the witness and stated that her husband had seen the big cat on the same road on Saturday, May 28, and had called the police about it.
  • The police detective in charge of the search finally told the witness, "I have to close this case." It was a matter of internal pressure, (neighbors were getting panicky), and not any video-evidence, that hastened the closure of the investigation.

So, the incident was turning into something more than your ordinary escaped exotic episode. I was especially interested in the police search. One of the newspaper clippings mentioned that the police had tried to lure the feline with raw chicken and liver. When nothing attempted to eat it, the police considered this negative evidence. Of course, this immediately brings up a question. Why didn't any coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, stray dogs, cats, etc., go after it either? (Sheesh.) When I heard about the drums, I was sure the cat had disappeared into the horizon.

The witness then told me that he had heard of some sightings in Carlisle and Springboro, both south of Dayton in Warren County. I took a day off and visited the libraries in Springboro, Franklin, and Carlisle to search through their recent newspapers and to post a few fliers. I was pleased to find several articles:

  • Breakfield, Myndi. "Springboro safari fails to uncover Bengal tiger." The Star Press (Springboro, OH) 6/7/94: A1.
  • Breakfield, Myndi. "Female lion reported seen in Carlisle area." The Star Press (Springboro, OH) 7/5/94: A1.
  • Breakfield, Myndi. "Wild lion looked for in Warren County." The Western Star (Lebanon, OH) 7/6/94: A7.
  • Goode, Janet. "Mother Tongue: Panthers and gators and bears - Oh, my!" The Western Star (Lebanon, OH) 6/15/94: B5.

There were two sightings involved here: A woman spotted a large, orange animal (the newspapers, not the woman, called it a tiger) running through the woods near the Dayton General South Airport on June 1, and another woman saw "a young lion" walking through some weeds near Carlisle on June 29. The second witness saw the cat in greater detail, describing it as about waist high, un-maned, and reddish-gold in color. The newspaper articles brought up the point that two years ago, a Springboro man had lost two lion cubs in the area that were never recovered. A Cincinnati Zoo vet was interviewed, and he stated that it would be unlikely for a young lion to survive the recent harsh winters.

My efforts to contact these two women were not successful. The witness for whom I have an address, but no name, has not responded to my letters. I have the name of the other witness, but she isn't in the phone book and my letters, sent to what I believed was her address, were returned by the post office.

One of the fliers I left at a library paid off, though. I received a phone call from a Franklin parent whose young son was scared by a "big cat." The cat was about 3 feet tall at the shoulders, sandy brown or tan in color, and had a 2 1/2 foot-long tail. The boy was about 100 feet from the cat, and watched as it walked across a field, turned to look at the boy, and then stepped through a barbwire fence. When the boy ran into his house to tell his parents, the cat disappeared, but they found paw prints (5 inches long, 4-5 inches wide, no claw marks) and "a slight odor, reminding me of a cat-house in a zoo." The boy's sighting was 4 days prior to the sighting in Miami Township, making it the earliest known report. (Not to any surprise, the cat was seen heading in a northerly direction.)

The cat traveled from Franklin north to Miami Township, then south and southwest to Springboro and Carlisle. My guess was that it went further south, into the farming communities and larger wooded regions. As I recently found out, that was correct.

There have been several recent sightings of the cat in Highland county. I received a call from the Franklin parent stating that a Cincinnati news station reported sightings in Hillsboro. I called up the Highland County Sheriff's Department to get some information. A deputy provided me with some very interesting facts:

  • There were several sightings. One lady saw it chasing a deer on November 10, 1994. The next day, a man found a freshly killed 6-point buck with its left hindquarter gone and a broken leg. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources stated that the deer was a roadkill gnawed on by raccoons. No throat damage or claw marks were seen on it.
  • The last sighting the deputy was aware of was just over the county line, north into Clinton county. Tracks were found, measuring 4 inches broad, 5 inches heel to toe, 3/4 inch deep. (These later were matched to a dog.)
  • The sightings (approx. 3-4 in Highland county, 1-2 in Clinton county) were over an 8 mile span, heading north.
  • No such sightings have happened before in the county. Exotic pet owners were checked by authorities, but none were reported missing. (But then, an illegally owned pet probably wouldn't be reported missing.)
  • ODNR said it wasn't their jurisdiction because they don't handle exotics. The Sheriff's Dept. usually ends up with these cases.

A number of newspaper articles have cropped up about the cat. These include:

  • Baird, Don. "Mystery animal stalking two counties." Columbus (OH) Dispatch 11/27/94: 1A.
  • "Elusive feline at large?" Press Gazette (Hillsboro, OH) 11/15/94: 1.
  • Gilliland, Jeff and Leone Bihl. "'Wild animal' sightings continue." Lynchburg (OH) News 11/17/94: 1.
  • "Large cat-like animal reported near Lynchburg." Wilmington (OH) News Journal 11/14/94: 1.

Sighting localities and the names of several witnesses are given in these articles. They also show a photograph of one paw cast. When I stopped in Hillsboro, I spoke briefly with the sheriff, who noted that ODNR was analyzing it to determine whether it was actually feline. No one connected the recent sightings with last spring's. There is little communication between law enforcement agencies on these matters.

One interesting (or puzzling) observation was noted in Baird's article. A woman claimed that the cat was sniffing around her home on Turner Road and "let out a great big roar, and then it went off running into the woods." Neither a cougar nor a lioness would "roar."

What is it? It may be that a cougar is roaming around in southwest Ohio's farmlands, fields and forests. If it was an abandoned lioness or a young lion, I don't know if it would survive the northern winters or not. Baird interviewed a Columbus zoo curator who stated that an abandoned pet cougar could survive on small game and roadkill. (Believe me, there are quite a few deer littering the roads in this area.) The curator stated that the cat is likely an adult, 60-100 lbs., and "would hunt in a circular pattern before picking a permanent territory that might cover 15 to 25 square miles."

That last fact is important. The feline had, in fact, followed a roughly circular pattern in its meanderings. The last reports had it roughly in the area known as Pricetown.

[1997 note - I never received any further reports about this animal. It's likely that it continued wandering, and may now be in the large tracts of woodland in southern Ohio. Cougar were once a native animal in Ohio, so it could easily have survived the most recent mild winters.]

[2002 note - I see that Loren Coleman has noted this account in his recent edition of Mysterious America as a supporting candidate for the "American Lion" theory. Without going into detail, as the entire "extant Panther atrox" theory is riddled with holes, I have seen no reason to consider this account as anything but a transient cougar. Coleman provides no argument to counter that theory, rather ignoring it completely and apparently expecting us to allow the media's flawed "naming" (such as "Bengal tiger") to make us think that stripes or spots were confidently noted. Reports by those witnesses with a good look at the animal all indicated a cougar's coloration and form. I actually have an idea where the animal came from — A local newscast stated that a law enforcement officer residing in a small town west of Dayton with a pet tiger and a pet cougar left town hurriedly around that time period, leaving behind the tiger in the police department's care. No mention was made of the cougar's whereabouts — I suspect he just let it go into the woods. Certainly, the Dayton-area environment is a poor candidate for any unknown feline's choice of habitat.]

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