African lion reportedly sighted roaming county's mountains

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The dense foliage of rural Carter County provides safe haven for a variety of wildlife.
   Deer, rabbits, and squirrel are a few of the indigenous creatures who call the mountains home. However, some county residents believe they have sighted another animal that has taken up residence that could lower the local deer, rabbit and squirrel population: an African lion.
   Poga community residents Troy Guy and his girlfriend, Ashley Clawson, were traveling on Poga Road before sundown on Monday evening when a large animal standing on an embankment off the road caught Ashley's eye.
   "I was like, 'oh my gosh, I swear I just saw a lion,'" said Clawson.
   "We was going up Poga Road; it was standing on the bank looking at the cars," said Guy. "It was brown and big and had a thing around its neck."
   Guy said the couple passed the animal and turned around to get a better look at what they'd seen. When they turned around, Guy and Clawson stated they saw the animal running up the embankment. The creature disappeared shortly after that.
   "There's a bank there and a field and a barn, but I don't know where it went from there," said Guy. "I guess we scared it or something."
   Clawson and Guy are apparently not alone.
   Evelyn Cable, owner of Cable's Hampton Family Restaurant, said she was driving on U.S. Highway 321 in the early morning hours when she saw what appeared to be an African lion standing beside the highway.
   "I just rounded the curve up at 321 and it was standing there," said Cable, who described the animal as having mane around its neck. "I wasn't sure what it was, but it sure looked like one."
   Cable said customers at Elk Mills restaurant also said they had seen a lion. She added that she was hesitant to report the sighting, which occurred three weeks ago, because of the nature of the incident.
   "I didn't want people to think I was crazy," she said with a laugh.
   How an African lion could be in Carter County is a mystery.
   Captive Wildlife Coordinator Walter Cook of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Nashville said Monday that he was aware of the Carter County reports but there was no physical evidence conclusively proving a lion was in the area.
   "There is no physical evidence, and there is no pattern either to where the sightings occurred," said Cook. "There should be tracks, and, to my knowledge, no tracks have been identified."
   Cook said agency officials notify local authorities if a reported big cat sighting is found to be legitimate. The agency works closely with local law enforcement departments to locate exotic animals if a sighting is confirmed, he said.
   The animal could be tranquilized and captured if wildlife agents and law enforcement officers found the animal isolated and not posing an immediate danger to the public, he said.
   "If we can contain the animal without imminent danger to the public we will do so," said Cook. "If the animal poses an imminent danger to the public, the animal is destroyed."
   He said the agency had issued only a handful of permits in the past 10 years authorizing the possession of dangerous animals in Tennessee.
   Personal possession of a wild animal without a permit is a Class A misdemeanor, said Cook. The majority of wild animal permits are issued to municipal zoos, universities, and reputable private exhibitors.
   If a citizen is discovered to have an exotic animal without a permit, wildlife officials have the authority to confiscate the animal and cite the owner immediately, said Cook.
   Cook said the exotic pet ownership and black market trade of illegally sold exotic animals has waned in the last five to 10 years. The general public has realized big cats and exotic animals do not make good pets, he said.
   He added the potential of being arrested and prosecuted for owning an unlicensed animal is also making some think twice about buying an exotic pet.
   The agency receives occasional reports of large animals in the wild, Cook said. The agency wildlife officer will investigate the report and assess the animal's existence and/or threat to the public.
   "Most of the time, nothing is there," Cook said. "People will say, 'I've seen a wolf', and it will be a coyote or they say, 'I've seen a cougar', and it will be a bobcat."
   However, Guy stated that he had found a dog's skeleton in his yard on Sunday evening.
   "All the skin and meat was gone off it and the collar of the dog was laying right beside it," he said. "I don't know what it was that would've done that."
   He also said Clawson and her mother were walking up Poga Road and found what appeared to be the partially eaten body of a dog.
   Despite what he had seen, Guy said he was not overly concerned about the animal's presence if the creature was an African lion.
   "A lion up in here," said Guy. "That has never happened."