Monday, July 14, 2008

A Colorado Lion?

An interesting scene unfolded today in my home county (El Paso County, Colorado, home of Colorado Springs) a few miles east of my domicile. Numerous reports and two cell-phone camera snaps of an "African lion" had a posse of officials searching by foot, vehicle, dog, and helicopter for a dangerous foreign feline. People from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the sheriff's department, the police department, and the state Division of Wildlife, along with experts from a sanctuary called Big Cats of Serenity Springs and a number of local volunteers, scoured the county east of Colorado Springs for most of the day.
Early on, there seemed no doubt it was a lion (for the record, neither the zoo nor the sanctuary was missing any lions). According to Michael Seraphin of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the photos and some tracks were enough to determine not only that it was a large cat, but that it was an African lion (Panthera leo) and not a mountain lion (Puma concolor), a natural resident of these parts.
And then the whole thing kind of petered out. Officials announced there was not, after all, evidence for a lion, and they blamed a large dog, likely a Great Pyrenees.

The alleged culprit matches the size of a lion (a big one being roughly equivalent to a medium-sized lion) but not the rest of the description. Some have shaggy hair on their very robust shoulders, which might give the impression at a glance of a slight mane, but the color of this dog is white, varying no darker than a pale yellow. And they are not common dogs - someone should have reported one missing.

(There’s a photo at of a slightly yellowish example, named, interestingly, Lion.)

As to the reported paw print, the spokesman for the Division of Wildlife was definite about calling it a lion's. If the prints were clear, an expert should not have confused canine with feline spoor. If they were smudged or faint, he shouldn’t have been venturing an ID at all.

This leaves the whole matter a bit confusing. There have been a surprising number of "African lion" reports in places across the U.S., almost never resulting in the discovery of a lion. Some have been identified as dogs, others left unexplained. Some cryptozoologists go so far as to postulate the survival of the North American lion Panthera leo atrox, but I think this is stretching the evidence considerably, given that fossils of this cat disappear about 10,000 years ago.

I'll report more if any further evidence turns up. For now, we have a mystery.

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