BY MATTHEW MORIARTY: STAFF WRITER
Wildlife experts in Moore County say they now have evidence that a large cat -- about the size of a cougar -- is roaming in the area.
Last week, Moore County Animal Control observed the tracks of a large cat near a horse farm off Youngs Road in Southern Pines. Wildlife experts took photographs and measurements.
"It's a large cat of some sort," said Paul Tillman, a wildlife control agent with Moore County Animal Control. "We don't know what it is."
There were several unconfirmed sightings of what people said was a mountain lion in different parts of Moore County during the summer.
Tillman said people should not panic. Experts say that if there is a large cat like a mountain lion in the area, it is unlikely that it would attack humans.
"People live with cougars out West every day," said David Rabon, endangered species biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "The key is to be cautious. ... We don't want the villagers out there with pitchforks and guns."
Tillman and his father, Robert, hope to capture the animal. The tracks measure about five inches long and four inches wide -- roughly the size of a human hand.
"Visual sightings are one thing," Tillman said. "This is something different. This is the first tangible evidence, proof of a large cat."
No one has reported seeing such an animal since the summer.
Johnny Parsons, who was at the time a security guard at Seven Lakes, started the reports this summer when he called the Moore County Sheriff's Office on June 28 to report seeing what he said was a mountain lion creeping through the gate at Seven Lakes.
Two days later, Karyn Ring spotted what she said was a "cat bigger than a bobcat" while driving on Jackson Springs Road.
Those two reported sightings opened the floodgates, and four more people reported seeing a large cat or, in one case, two. One person claimed that he saw two mountain lions kill a domestic cat. Additional sightings were near Lake Auman, the Country Club of North Carolina and near Holly Grove School Road.
A local doctor even reported that a government worker told him that a government wildlife agency released two mountain lions into Moore County to control the deer population several years ago.
The Eastern cougar is native to North Carolina and the Sandhills, but state and national wildlife experts say that cougars were eradicated from North Carolina in the early 1900s. They said that particular species may be extinct.
It is possible that such a cat could have been seen near Seven Lakes and also be in Southern Pines near Youngs Road. Big cats have a large range and use the riverine areas to travel, said Pete Campbell, a local biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
The land where the tracks were found is adjacent to the Walthour-Moss Foundation land. It has a large deer population that the animal could be living off of.
But the likelihood of its being a wild animal is very small, Rabon said. He said he gets several reported sightings a month, and none have panned out as Eastern cougars and only a small number as big cats.
Probably a Pet
The cat was probably someone's pet, experts say.
"A lot of people like to collect exotics," Tillman said. "It probably got loose from somebody, or they just let it go because they couldn't handle it."
An animal that had once been a pet may not have as much of a fear of humans as animals that grew up in the wild do, said Pam Fulk, executive director of the Carnivore Preservation Trust.
But large cats like to remain alone by their nature, she said. They are loath to seek out human contact. She worries more about domestic pets.
"That is prey size and they will eat it," Fulk said.
Even a cat that grew up raised by humans will have proficient enough hunting skills to get along in the wild, Campbell said.
"I think if it is somebody's pet, it's just living off the fat of the land," he said. "There are a lot of deer on the Moss Foundation."
Should it turn out to be a wild animal -- and not a pet -- it would have to be an Eastern cougar. That would make it the first documented case of an Eastern cougar in North Carolina in decades.
The Eastern cougar is federally listed as an endangered species, Rabon said. People can be prosecuted for hunting it. But the law does allow for people to protect themselves and their property.
"If it is immediately threatening," Rabon said, "then they can defend themselves."
'Something Out There'
Whenever news comes out that there might be a large cat in an area, reports of sightings go up, Tillman said . That's what happened in Moore County during the summer, he said.
"My phone rang off the hook for a month or two," he said.
Even with the tracks, most experts are still inclined to discount the sightings from this summer. People often mistake foxes, coyotes, deer and even bears as big cats, they say.
"I'm still a bit skeptical," said Jonathan Shaw, district biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. "I get reports all the time and it turns out to be something else."
Even with a print, it will be difficult for experts to say what kind of cat it is.
"You can buy a tiger," Fulk said. "You can buy a leopard. It could be anything."
If someone were to come face to face with a large cat, the best thing to do would be to slowly and calmly back away, Fulk said, while trying to appear as large as possible.
"What you should not do is turn your back and run," she said. "Neither of those would be good ideas. That's what their prey does."
To report a sighting or any information on the animal, contact Tillman at 783-6173.
"Most definitely there is something out there," Tillman said.
Matthew Moriarty may be reached at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.