Black cat mystery: Just a cat|Richard_F||03/16/04 at 21:23:25|richard_F|xx|0||Black cat mystery: Just a cat

By Chip Womick
Staff Writer, The Courier-Tribune

ASHEBORO - The city's black mystery cat turns out to have been a big housecat, according to a West Virginia man who has spent years tracking sightings of mysterious cats.

"This has all the characteristics and tendencies of a large housecat or a feral cat, but it was not a panther," said John Lutz of Maysville, W.Va., director of the Eastern Puma Research Network.

Lutz - and a colleague in Pennsylvania who is an expert on cougars - viewed a video of the black cat shot Jan. 27 by Denise Williams in south Asheboro.

The video, shot through a window of Williams' home, shows a black feline in a snow-covered field 100 feet or more from her house. On the same day Williams saw the creature, one of her neighbors also saw, and filmed, a big animal. A Randolph County sheriff's deputy reported seeing a large animal in a nearby wooded area that day, too.

The Eastern Puma Research Center is the oldest and largest cougar research group in the United States and has collected more than 6,000 reports since 1965, according to Lutz. Of those, 134 sightings were in North Carolina; 20 sightings were reported in 2003.

The animal in Williams' video was not large enough, Lutz said, for its paws to break through the icy crust on the snow as it walked, even as it leapt over small branches. He estimated the size of the cat at 15-20 pounds.

Some of Williams' neighbors trapped a large black cat on Feb. 9. An animal control officer said the feral cat probably weighed about 15 pounds. The men who caught the cat predicted there would be no more big cat sightings once the creature was taken from the neighborhood.

Lutz said that he once had an encounter with a black cat that mirrors Williams' experience. On more than one occasion, he said, he saw the cat from 100 to 150 feet and thought that perhaps it could be a large wild cat of some kind. Then he encountered the cat at a distance of about 30 feet and realized that it was only a housecat.

"Black animals, or black cats, for some reason look bigger," he said. "They just look bigger."

Williams said Thursday that she had heard from Lutz.

"He's an expert and if he says that's what it was, it probably was. ... It certainly was a strange experience for me," she said, adding: "Even with our cat turning out to be a housecat, I think we have learned a lot about the existence of wild cats in our area."

Williams said everywhere she went after her black cat sighting was reported in the news, people wanted to talk about it.

"About half the people would laugh and tell a joke and about half the people would have a story where they had seen a black cat or a mountain lion or something."