Experts say the large cat that frightened a woman in rural Newton County in May was not native to Missouri or even to North America. Conservation officials say that much was obvious from the cat's color.
A Newton County sheriff's deputy shot and killed the cat, which turned up in a residential yard May 19. The cat approached a woman, who fled indoors and called 911.
The cat was a young male whose body was approximately 3 feet long and weighed 40 pounds. Its age was estimated at six months. An initial examination showed the claws had been removed from all four of the animal's paws. Its fur was jet black.
"When I saw the photos of this animal I knew immediately it was not a mountain lion," said Jeff Beringer, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Old World leopards and jaguars in the New World can be spotted or black. Mountain lions vary a little in the color of their coat, but they are never black."
That left the leopard, Pantera pardus, which is native to Asia and Africa, and the jaguar, Pantera onca, of South and Central America. Steve Bircher, curator of mammals/carnivores at the St. Louis Zoological Park, confirmed Beringer's initial reaction, identifying the Newton County cat as a leopard.
The only wild cats native to Missouri are the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the mountain lion (Puma concolor). While native bobcats have survived in Missouri, the last of the Show-Me State's mountain lions probably were killed in the early 20th century. In recent years several isolated occurrences of mountain lions have been documented in Missouri. Evidence supports the theory that these cats are individuals dispersing from areas with established mountain lion populations to the west of Missouri.
Conservation officials say these few confirmed sightings in no way indicate a resident population of mountain lions in Missouri.
"We can tell quite a bit about these animal's origins by examining their bodies," said Beringer. "The fact that the leopard from Neosho had no claws tells us it was a captive animal. It was in excellent physical condition, with plenty of body fat, but it had nothing in its stomach. That is another sign that it was escaped or released from captivity. A wild cat would be able to get food for itself."
The pads of the cat's paws were worn smooth, a condition commonly associated with living on a concrete floor.
Similarly, said Beringer, the bodies of mountain lions killed by automobiles in the Kansas City and New Bloomfield areas in recent years yielded important information.
Both were young males, the age and sex most likely to strike out cross-country in search of territories of their own.
Both had claws, were in good condition and had food in their stomachs, indicating they were competent hunters.
The Conservation Department does not regulate non-native wildlife, so the agency has no records that might have revealed where the leopard came from.
The Newton County Sheriff's Department had only one permit for an exotic cat in its files, and that was a Bengal tiger.
The sheriff's department has not received any inquiries from the owner of a missing leopard.