Mountain lion spotted in Beaver County

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Douglas C. Carney has worked for the Pennsylvania Game Commission for 25 years. Only once before has he had to contact a county 911 center and provide a be-on-the-lookout description to all law enforcement officials.


  
Online Graphic: Comparing cats

See a graphic that compares a mountain lion with a bobcat.

  
 

That was in 1993, when a mountain lion escaped from its owner in Allegheny County.

The second time came yesterday.

After four sightings of a mountain lion in Beaver County between Friday and Tuesday, Carney, the county's conservation officer, asked all law and emergency personnel to be aware that a big cat was wandering a route from Economy to New Brighton.

Despite reported sightings on Friday and Saturday, Carney was not convinced there was a mountain lion -- also known as a cougar, panther or puma -- until a trusted acquaintance called him Sunday.

"If he says it was a cougar, it was probably a cougar," Carney said. "I have confidence in what he saw and what he believes."

While a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission said the state has no native wild population of mountain lions, the animal's wide-ranging habitat runs from Canada through South America. In this country, it's found mostly in the Western states, although a small population exists in southern Florida, where the species is considered endangered.

The lion on the lam in Beaver County could also be someone's escaped pet.

Mario Monac said he saw a big cat around 11 a.m. Tuesday outside his Daugherty home near New Brighton.

"I looked at this thing for a good 20 minutes to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing," said Monac, who works at the Beaver County Jail.

Monac watched the cat through the scope of his .22 rifle as it prowled in a patch of woods about 130 feet from his home. He estimated the cat was 2 to 3 feet long, excluding the tail.

But he hesitated to report the sighting.

"Try to convince someone that you saw a mountain lion in Western Pennsylvania," he said. "Everybody will think you're nuts."

William Sheperd doesn't. The Fayette County veterinarian said that in addition to Kimba, the escaped mountain lion of 1993 that had been kept illegally by an exotic dancer, there was the more recent case in 2001 of Mr. Bigglesworth, the 42-pound African serval cat who twice escaped from a Point Breeze home.

Both cats now live at Sheperd's 100-acre Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage near Smock, along with 32 other big cats. But Sheperd said he believes there are mountain lions in the state.

"We have had sightings in our area for at least the past two years," he said. "People who live up on the mountains near Jumonville and Laurel Caverns will tell you they've seen cougars for years."

In the past two months, Sheperd said, there were two sightings near Brownsville and Flatwoods. In the fall, he saw two sets of mountain lion "pugs," or footprints, near Ohiopyle.

Mark Cooper, who with his wife, Sheila, runs Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary 25 miles east of Morgantown, W.Va., said during the past decade "there have been hundreds of sightings up and down the Appalachian Mountain chain."

Mountain lions are nicknamed "the ghosts" because of their elusiveness and secretive tendencies. Usually a light tawny brown color that can appear gray, they feed primarily on deer, rabbits, wild hogs and rodents. Occasionally, they will kill livestock or dogs. They can be as long as 9 feet from nose to tail and weigh from 75 to 275 pounds.

There have been no reports of attacks on livestock or pets since the mountain lion's first sighting Friday in Economy. Saturday it was seen near Center, and Sunday between Freedom and Rochester.

State law requires permits for anyone who breeds, sells, owns or exhibits exotic animals like mountain lions. In 2003, the state licensed 25 breeders and sellers, 91 owners and 144 menageries.

Mel Schake, game commission information and education supervisor of the southwest region, said no permits were issued for Beaver County.

If the Beaver County cat was owned unlawfully and escaped, it's unlikely the owner would report it because of the threat of criminal charges.

"We've had no one calling in here asking if we'd seen one of their lost mountain lions," Schake said.


Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.


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