Does a 'big cat' prowl South County?|jon_downes||09/18/03 at 11:05:51|jon_downes|xx|0||Does a 'big cat' prowl South County? Three sightings reported here

By: MARK SCHIELDROP 09/17/2003

SOUTH COUNTY - Since waking up last week to the sounds of blood-curdling screams and witnessing what they describe as a large wild cat dismember and devour a deer in their back yard, Saunderstown residents Steven and Terry Kelly are uneasy and disturbed.

The Department of Environmental Management report says that an approximately 40-pound fawn was taken down by a coyote or several coyotes in the couple's back yard off Switch Road.
The Kellys insist otherwise.
"It was like the wild kingdom," said Steven. "The deer was taken down quickly, violently, and efficiently. What we saw is not to be ignored."
It began shortly after midnight last Tuesday. Terry, a light sleeper, awoke to the sound of screeching, "like the sound of a cat attacking," she said.
The screams of the deer immediately followed, which woke up Steven.
From their upstairs bedroom window, they saw a large animal on top of the deer, grasping it from behind. The screaming continued as they hurried downstairs.
Suddenly the screaming stopped cold, and the deer collapsed to the ground.
Through their kitchen windows, the Kellys watched the animal drag the deer up their lawn and begin work preparing its meal.
"It was like witnessing a murder," said Steven. "My heart was racing. I had been woken up out of a deep sleep. As I looked at this thing I realized this was a large cat. My wife looked over at me and said 'Oh my God, that's a cat'."
The animal stood over the kill and paced around it several times. The Kelly's describe it as 50 to 75 pounds, moving in a catlike fashion. Shielded from moonlight by the shade of a large tree, they say it was difficult to make out clear distinctions but feel certain it was a feline, with large paws and big, strong legs.
According to the DEM report, the Kellys described the creature as "bushy" in appearance and said they were "sure it was not a coyote."
The animal worked the carcass for some time, holding it in place and tearing at the midsection.
"I turned on the lights," said Stephen, "and it showed no fear. It just crouched over its kill, like it was saying to me, 'I'm not going anywhere.'"
It then grabbed the fawn with its jaws and threw it across their back yard. The deer was severed completely in half.
The animal then took the hindquarters, walked closer to the house, and plopped down on the lawn and slowly ate all the meat.
"It stripped the meat off and left the hind section perfectly clean. It was expertly cleaned," said Steven.
Shocked and nervous, the Kellys went back to bed with plans to call DEM in the morning.
A uniformed environmental police officer arrived and surveyed the scene Wednesday morning. The Kellys explained what they saw; and according to Steven, he appeared to believe their story.
They toured the scene together. The deer's upper torso and head were about 30 feet away from the house. It had been hollowed out, and its head had puncture wounds, possibly from claws gripping the head as the animal worked to separate the body.
The kidney, stomach, and intestines were left in neat piles near the torso. The hindquarters, which had been eaten, were 15 feet away, closer to the house.
The unformed officer called the incident back and Senior Biologist Charles Brown arrived.
"Before even looking at the carnage," said Steven, "he was telling me what I saw were coyotes."
The Kellys said they're upset at the way DEM responded.
"They said they don't have definitive evidence. Last I knew, two witnesses was definitive evidence," said Steven.
The Kellys said that a neighbor approached the DEM agents and said she thinks she might have seen a large creature recently in the area fitting the description.
"They didn't even take her name of phone number," said Steven.
Brown said in a telephone interview Monday he is "convinced it was the work of a coyote."
Brown investigated the scene, and said there was no evidence left behind of any type of wild cat.
"We did find tracks of large dogs, coyote, and deer but no feline tracks of any kind," he said. "Neighbors adjacent to (the Kellys) heard nothing during the night," he added. "Nor were they aware of any sightings in the area. There was nothing to indicate the killing was done by large cat."
In Brown's report, he said the descriptions given to him by the Kellys were "vague at best."
Because the kill was left overnight, said Brown, other animals may have moved things around. With the heart, lungs, and liver missing and only the stomach, intestines, and kidney found, the coyotes would have come back to finish it off.
"It looked like it had been fed on by more than one animal," said Brown. "Cats are more secretive; they usually take food and eat it at another location."
Deputy Chief of Fish and Wildlife Michael Lapiskey said "The area in Saunderstown has a large coyote population. For it to be a large cat, we have to have physical evidence."
Lapiskey said there's an extremely low chance a large cat like a panther or mountain lion would be in Rhode Island. He did not rule out the possibility of an exotic animal being dumped in the woods, but said it was unlikely.
"I'm 99.9 percent positive it was a coyote," he said.
The Kellys are originally from Montana, and said that wild cats frequently brush with the public in that part of the country, especially in cold winters when food is at a scarcity.
"Maybe because we're used to this kind of thing from Montana, it wasn't so strange for us to jump to this conclusion that it was a wild cat," said Steven. "But I've seen coyotes. If these were coyotes I'd have been out there with a shovel. This was a wild cat, a cunning, quick, efficient killer."
"Coyotes wouldn't leave the stomach, intestines, and organs behind," he continued. "They eat everything. They can't tear or rip meat from bones with their paws like a cat, so there would be no perfectly clean bones left behind. They leave a massive debris field. They make a ton of noise.
"Here," he said, pointing to a dark brown spot in the grass, where the deer collapsed in death, "there wasn't a lot of bones or hair strewn around. This was a clean, professional kill."
DEM spent a couple hours documenting the scene and taking photographs. On Friday, boot marks were visible throughout their yard. Steven contended DEM officials had scuffed out prints. There were no signs of the deer, except for the bloodstains in the grass.
Across the street in the shoulder of the road, a hoof print was visible on Friday afternoon. Right next to it was another print, which resembled a paw of some kind.
"You see these two holes," said STeven, pointing at a pair of deep impressions at the front of the print. "Those are claw marks, from when the cat was running after the deer, claws extended. The DEM guys stuck a stick in there, but you can still see it."
The Kellys aren't the only South County residents saying they saw a large wild cat in the area.
Solace Loven, of Carolina, said she witnessed what she describes as a chocolate panther a month ago.
"We have a brush pile, and towards the left of it there was this very large animal. I only saw it face-on, and thought it was a German Shepherd but it was chocolate brown," she said. "So I grabbed a three foot ruler and ran out waving the ruler shouting 'go home!'"
The creature then jumped twenty feet "in a rainbow" (arc), she said.
"I could see this very large brown face, larger than a dinner plate. I looked down and thought dear god, this is a cat," said Loven.
Joanne Spears of Exeter said she saw what looked like "a black panther" while on the road more than a month ago.
"It was about 10:30 pm on my way to work picking up 95 on Route 102 from Route 3 in Exeter, and it ran across the road," she said. "You know how on TV when they show a cat in a full run, and they're stretched out in the back -- that's what it looked like.
"To me it looked like a black panther," she continued. "I said I can't believe my eyes. I know what cats look like and it was shaped like a big one, the size of a panther."
Brown said DEM has received several reports of similar sightings, but so far, there has been no conclusive evidence.
"We get occasional sighting reports as animals described as mountain lions," he said. "The few that I would go out and investigate that I'd think I'd find some evidence, they've all turned out to be coyotes or dogs or unable to tell."
"I know what I saw," countered Loven, "and I'm not going to back down."

ŠThe Narragansett Times 2003