Panther panic hits Italy again |Ed Malone||02/18/06 at 22:51:33|obadiah|xx|0||Panther panic hits Italy again

Rome 'big game hunt' ends in frustration (ANSA) - Rome, February 15 - Italy has been hit by one of its periodic bouts of panther panic with a full-scale 'big game hunt' in Rome .

Recurrent reports of a panther on the loose in the capital on Wednesday spurred police to put out an all-points bulletin for the big cat .

It was Italy's sixth panther alert in just over a decade .

An early Wednesday morning sweep only smoked out a domestic cat but then the hunt began in earnest. A beast was reportedly tracked to a building site on the city's outskirts but managed to slip through the dragnet, snubbing its nose at police, veterinarians and wildlife experts .

Undeterred, the hunters began combing the underbrush around a well-known shrine but again turned up nothing .

Rome city council played down the panther fears Wednesday evening, saying the animal was probably a big black dog foraging for food .

It voiced the hope the animal would soon be caught for the good of Romans' nerves .

The latest feline flap comes on the back of a similar scare in the northern city of Turin in December. After sightings from concerned citizenry, police were put on the lookout and a traffic cop succeeded in identifying the big cat as a black panther .

This prompted rumours that a Moscow zoo then performing in Turin had lost one of its biggest draws .

The zoo squashed the reports, saying it had no panthers but only dogs, camels and horses .

The recent panther fears revived memories of a wild cat chase near Turin six and a half years ago .

That 1999 report spurred copycat incidents as feline fever spread to the provincial border with Como .

Italy is no stranger to reports of predators on the loose .

Most of the others have come amid midsummer news droughts known to journalistic insiders as "the silly season." Panthers were reported to have been sighted in the harsh landscape of central Sardinia in 2001 and the rolling countryside of central Umbria in 1993 and 1995 .

After the second Umbria sighting locals said they had also seen a lion roaming in the vicinity .