Big cat near Dunkerton may be two-stepping canine|Richard_F||04/21/05 at 05:09:39|richard_f|xx|0||Big cat near Dunkerton may be two-stepping canine

DUNKERTON --- The state's top man on animals with fur thinks Iowans are
possessed with mountain lion mania.

Ron Andrews works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He fields
many calls each month about the animals. Many calls. Last week, he got a few
from Dunkerton.

Tom Smock sparked a sensation when he discovered three paw prints near Crane
Creek. Checking with neighbors, Smock found people in two households with
credible tales to tell. Independently, each decided what had passed through
their woods. One woman even shared a videotape of not one, but four animals
frolicking in the sunshine.

The video is shaky evidence, however, and attempts by two people to take
still photographs failed. No one wanted to talk publicly -- until Smock
shared the marks in the mud.

Andrews was skeptical of all but the paw print, which he reviewed as a
photo. It was probably made by a big cat, he said.

"After looking at the picture, it only leaves me with just a shade of

Jim Jansen, a DNR wildlife biologist based in Fayette County, thinks
otherwise. Wednesday, after viewing the original scoop of mud that Smock
preserved, Jansen ruled the print was not made by a mountain lion. He said
the print is actually two overlapping impressions made by a dog stepping on
the soft soil twice.

Smock agreed that by coincidence the dog's foot or feet fell in almost the
exact location. The two-step turned a 3-inch German shepherd print into a
4-inch double stamping.

"That takes the wind out of my print," Smock said.

Jansen pointed to a small indentation that appears to be a fifth toe, a
problem since mountain lions only have four. Once again, two dog's tracks
could add up to five toes if placed appropriately, he said.

"He was pretty adamant," Smock said.

Questions about why the print --- or double print --- does not include claw
marks remain unanswered, however. Mountain lions, like most cats, keep their
claws sharp by retracting them when walking. Conversely, dogs are not able
to retract their nails.

Jansen said he didn't see any claw marks, "but they were not the best of

Smock also noted three eyewitness accounts haven't been explained either.

Shortly after Christmas, an elementary teacher and his 15-year-old daughter
watched an animal for about 15 minutes from a distance of about 200 yards.
That creature climbed a toppled tree, lounged in the sun and had a long
tail, they said.

On March 14, their neighbor videotaped four creatures over the span of about
45 minutes. At their closest, one large animal and three smaller versions
were about 370 feet away.

"My first thought was, 'That looks like a lioness,'" Sue Hauptly said.

Both sightings were reportedly on clear, sunny days. Jansen remains

"There are mountain lion sightings all over the state right now," he said.

He investigated two Wednesday. The other was near Hawkeye, where people
suspect a big cat snatched a calf.

"That was a dog, too," he said.

Andrews in an interview last week offered a possible explanation: bobcats.

"They are in over 75 counties in Iowa, including Black Hawk, I think. If
they aren't there, they soon will be," he said.

Andrews said hard evidence of mountain lions in Iowa is rare. Eyewitness
accounts of big cats don't count for much since officials estimate 80 to 90
percent are cases of mistaken identity. Faulty prints don't help either.

A home movie would.

"If it's a quality video, that might be what we're looking for," Andrews
said. "But it doesn't sound like it."