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Could a big cat be prowling Madison County? DNR doubts it.

On an evening in early May, Anne Cicero was sitting on her golf cart in her garage at her rural St. Jacob home. She was staring at the densely wooded area beyond her driveway when she noticed what appeared to be something looking back at her.

Two small, golden lights were bobbing in the trees. But an instant later, they were gone.

“I thought to myself, ‘What in the world?’” Cicero said.

When the lights pierced once again through the darkness, a shiver of fear raced down Cicero’s back. She ran for the door of her house.

Long before that night, Cicero had been noticing weird happenings around her home of 17 years on 4 Corners Lane, near the St. Louis Metro-East Airport in eastern Madison County. She said she had noticed game disappearing in her neighborhood, and when she would sit on her porch, she would hear an unusual noise. Cicero said she knew the noise was not from a coyote, a dog, a badger, peacock, blue heron, egret or bobcat. And Cicero knows a bit about nature. She is the daughter of outdoors writer Larry Mueller, who wrote for national magazines such as Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, Sports Afield, and Gun Digest.

The “unsettling” shriek was more like a woman’s shrill scream, she said.

On May 6, perturbed by tiredness, Cicero decided not to make her usual late-night trip to check on her chickens and their hatchlings, which she now counts as fortuitous circumstance.

“Which is not normally me,” Cicero said. “Maybe my angels were helping me.”

The glowing eyes would make a return appearance that night — this time at a next-door neighbor’s house.

While Rafael Ruiz was at work, his daughter was preparing to get her children ready to leave their grandparents’ house. As she walked up to the door, she noticed something peculiar investigating the passenger seat of her car. At first, she thought it was a person was rooting through her vehicle.

She beckoned her mother to come have a look. Ruiz said that his wife knew the figure was not a person. Frightened by the sight, the two women locked themselves in the house until Ruiz came home later that night.

Seeing his frightened family, Ruiz knew he would have to escort his daughter out to the car. With their pit bull leading the way, the family made their way outside.

Then, a deafening screech tore through the silent darkness, sending the dog, which Ruiz said has never been afraid of anything, sprinting back to the house with its hair raised and tail between its legs.

“She ran like crazy,” Ruiz said. “I have never seen an animal so scared in my life.”

The family followed the dog’s example.

“All three of us were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ruiz said.

Once inside their walled sanctuary, the Ruiz family decided to search the Internet to find out what animal could make such a screech. After some searching, they found what they believed to be the answer: mountain lion.

“My daughter was shaking for 15 minutes,” Ruiz said.

After the encounter, Cicero recalled hearing a “pop, pop, pop” noise — like gunfire. She walked outside and saw Ruiz frantically searching the yard with a flashlight. The next day, he visited Cicero to recount his terrifying tale. Ruiz also played Cicero a recording of a sound like the one his family heard. Cicero agreed it was exactly like what she heard while sitting on her porch — “without a doubt.”

It didn’t take long for word to spread around the neighborhood.

“The next few days, there were plenty of people out there doing target practice,” Cicero said.

Cicero and Ruiz thought, at first, all the noise had scared off the beast. But then, at about 11:30 p.m. on May 22, Cicero said she thought she heard its wail again.

“I don’t know what it was,” she said. “I didn’t see anything, but I heard something suspicious.”

Cicero said mountain lions usually try to avoid humans. But she believes that this animal, whatever it is, to be exhibiting dangerous behavior. She hypothesized it may be a young male lion that has not learned to stay away from man.

“When it starts stalking humans, it’s much more dangerous,” Cicero said.

Ruiz said he felt like the animal had been stalking his family for quite some time.

“It does mess with your life,” Ruiz said. “Now, we can’t stay outside. Everybody is afraid.”

Cicero and Ruiz want to alert the public, just in case their worst fears turn out to be true.

An expert’s opinion

Cicero found tracks on her property in several places May 24, when the Highland News Leader visited her for an interview.

However, Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologist Ryan Swearingin visited the site the following day and found the tracks to be too small to be a cougar. Some of the tracks also displayed clear nail markings, he said. Because cats have retractable claws, nail marks rarely are visible in tracks, which led Swearingin to believe they were left by some sort of canine.

“I visited the site this morning and didn’t find any evidence of a mountain lion,” Swearingin said. “All I can conclude from that is we cannot confirm that a mountain lion was there. Hopefully, Ms. Cicero will continue to keep an eye out and monitor with her game camera.”

As for the noises? Swearingin said it can be hard to identify a cougar, because they can be easily confused with many other animals that make similar noises.

“It’s tough to say whether it is or isn’t a cougar,” Swearingin said. “Bobcats make some similar vocalizations.”

Swearingin also said the bobcat population in Illinois has dramatically increased, enough so that the DNR now allows a bobcat hunting season. He said there are estimated to be more than 5,000 bobcats currently in the state, and the southern half of Illinois is more heavily populated with them.

Other sightings

To say for certain it was a mountain lion, a sighting needs to be confirmed by physical evidence, which sometimes is extremely difficult, according to Swearingin. The type of evidence that would prompt an investigation by the DNR would either be tracks, a picture or the carcass of a cougar.

Swearingin referred the News Leader to the site of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization that studies mountain lions. One of the services provided by the organization is the tracking of confirmed mountain lion sightings. The website provides a map of confirmed sightings logged from 1990 to the present. According to the map, between those years, there has not been a confirmed mountain lion sighting in Madison County.

The map shows that the most recent sightings in southern Illinois were within a month of each other, between late October and early November 2014. Those sightings were in Effingham County and the other right outside Springfield.

However, the site does not account for all sightings, just the reported, confirmed ones.

Troy Community Service Officer Scott Lawson believes, in 2011, he caught a cougar on one of his trail cameras somewhere between Marine and Edwardsville. But the picture is from afar, and the animal’s face cannot be seen. Lawson took the picture to a shop, where they enhanced it. After the process, Lawson said he believes his thoughts were confirmed.

Lawson also recounted the tale of a fabled black cougar that has been said to live between Grantfork and Marine. Though it has never been officially recorded, Lawson said he has heard stories of its appearances. A friend of his even said that she saw it while she was fishing. Lawson said she told him the cougar came down to the water to take a drink, where she watched the cat for five minutes before it ran off into the trees.

However, Swearingin doubted the tales of that cat, saying that black panthers or “melanistic cougars” are not known to exist. No such creature has ever been photographed, shot in the wild or bred in captivity, Swearingin said, which leads experts to believe that they are just legends.

Fabled cat or not, Swearingin said that a mountain lion sighting in Illinois is possible.

There have been confirmed ones on the other side of the Mississippi. The Missouri Department of Conservation, on its website, reports that there have been three mountain lion sightings in eastern Missouri this year, all in January:

▪  In Ralls County, video of a mountain lion was taken by a game camera. It was also confirmed using photos and other signs.

▪  In Pike County, a photo of a mountain lion was taken by a game camera. It was also confirmed using photos and other signs.

▪  In Warren County, a sub-adult male mountain lion was killed in a vehicle collision. There was no indication it was a captive animal. Genetic analysis is in progress to determine origin.

Getting documentation

IDNR is always looking for opportunities to record information about mountain lions, according to Swearingin.

“Sightings are very rare, so we certainty would like them to contact the IDNR, their local biologist or conservation officer,” Swearingin said.

He said, if it is at all possible, they try to collect evidence of the felines without putting anyone in danger.

“One recommendation we will actually make is using game or trail cameras,” Swearingin said. “Photographic evidence is obviously really good for us to look at.”

If a cat keeps returning to a particular place, it is usually a good indication they are storing food, such as a large carcass, Swearingin said. If such evidence present, Swearingin said to call the IDNR immediately, and if tracks are present, people can try covering them with plastic to preserve them. He also said taking pictures is beneficial, but make sure to use an object of known size for comparison.

Tips for cougar encounters

Swearingin said that if anyone is concerned a mountain lion is in their area, they should keep their pets on a leash and supervise them while they are outside. He also recommended to avoid keeping food outside, because it will attract all kinds of wildlife. Keeping an air whistle or a horn on hand and going walking with a partner is always a good idea, he said.

If anyone does find themselves in the direct proximity of a cougar, Swearingin said to not engage the animal. If it engages you, make plenty of noise, and make yourself appear bigger and give the cat a chance to leave, he said.

Swearingin said their are two truths to mountain lion encounters. First, do not run. This could trigger an attack from behind; throwing rocks or sticks is more useful. Secondly, do not try to kill the cougar. Mountain lions are in the group of large carnivores protected in the state of Illinois, and according to Swearingin, it is illegal to kill one, unless someone is in imminent danger.