A tiger along the Saline River? Some people think so

Hays Daily News by Juno Ogle

Thursday, September 2, 1999

Front Page

Headline: "A tiger along the Saline River? Some people think so"

Lions and tigers and, well, no bears, but a couple of eyewitness reports and the discovery of partial tracks has some believing one or more big cats have taken up residence along the Saline River in northern Ellis County.

"I'm 100 percent sure we've got a cat down there. I'm half and half on a tiger," said Brian Werner, executive director of Tiger Missing Link Foundation, Tyler, Texas.

Ellis County officials agree something is on the river, but aren't so quick to speculate.

"We know there's something out there. We can't prove it's a tiger or disprove it's a tiger," Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin said.

The evidence that brought Werner to Ellis County from his sanctuary includes footprints, droppings and up to five eyewitness accounts, two of which he believes are solid sightings.

The first came Aug. 2 when Mike Langholz, 16, Plainville, said he saw a cat the size of a medium- to large-size dog crossing a bridge over the Saline River. It was orange with black stripes, a white face and a tail about two feet long, Langholz said.

And while Mel Madorin, acting regional law enforcement division supervisor for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said he has not seen evidence that convinces him the animal is a tiger, he doesn't disbelive Langholz "I know the young man that spotted it. He's convince," Madorin said.

Werner said he had talked to Langholz and another witness who claimed ot have seen a grown tiger this week. He said he has also heard of three other reports that people saw something, but who can't say for sure it was a tiger.

Although the rootprints were old and somewhat washed out when discovered along the river, Werner said he was sure they were too big to be a cougar or a bobcat.

In addition, there have been tigers kept as exotic pets in the region, and so far, he has not been able to account for two of those animals..

From the descriptions, Werner said the cat is about 300 to 400 pounds and possibly is a cub. He doesn't rule out there could be a second, mature tiger based on the second eyewitness.

Werner and Harbin stressed they believe the cat is not a danger to the public, houwever.

"If there's a tiger out there, it wants to avoid you. It's more scared of you than you are of it. That's what I believe on this particular situation. By nature, they will avoid people," Werner said.

Werner declined to specify where the sightings had taken place for fear it would bring out hunters, but did say the search is concentrated on a 13- to 16-mile stretch of the river.

All land along the Saline River is privately owned, and the sheriff's department is patrolling the area to keep an eye out for trespassers, Harbin said.

Anyone caught trying to kill the animal would find themselves in legal trouble it it is in fact a tiger, Werner said. Tigers are an endangered species in their native Asia and are protected as such in the United Sates.

"Itt's illegal to kill a tiger. There's a one-year imprisonment and $100,000 fine. Whoever wants to go in ther and play John Wayne, we'll catch him," Werner said.

Because of the endangered species aspect, Wildlife and Parks is monitoring the situation.

Whether a tiger or courgar, the animal is not likly to come close to people.

"Based on prey base, I don't think it's going to come up and bother anybody at this time. I't got all it needs - water, cover, food," Werner said. Turkeys, cranes and deer would be its source of food, he added.

If anyone should encounter a tiger, though, Werner said the best action is to keep calm.

"If somebody comes face to face with a tiger, they should not turn their back. They should walk away slowly and get in their vehicle and leave or get in a building. If there's nothing for them to get in, a tiger cannot climb a tree," he said.

Fifteen feet off the ground should be high enough to keep safe from a fully grown tiger, which can reach 8 to 10 feet in length, he said.

Jerry Choate, director of Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History, said if the cat is a cougar, it also would avoid humans, preferring the cover of trees or rough terrain.

Although the last recorded specimen of a cougar was a young animal shot by two Hays men north of Catherine in 1904, Choate said the animal's numbers have been on the increase in Kansas ever since the deer population has increased.

And if there were one place in the region he would go to look for a cougar, Choate said it would be the Saline River because of its cover and the food source.

To capture the animal, Werner brought with him a number of humane snares and a veteran at catching big cats- Frank Smith of Zapata, Texas.

Smith was a game warden in New Mexico for more than 33 years and for the last 10 years has worked with the Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, based at the University of Idaho, Moscow.

In that work, Smith has captured cougars for conservation and research in northern New Mexico and spent six weeks in Siberia to train others to snare tigers.

Smith has been walking and boating the river and its tributaries in search of tracks or other signs of the cat and has also been teaching Werner how to set the snares.

He said he will be returning to Texas within a few days to return to other projects.

If a cat is snared, it will be tranquilized with a Wildlife and Parks authority present, Werner said. If it is a tiger, it will be transported to Werner's sanctuary. If it is a cougar, it will most likely be released.

While Werner is not charging for his services, he said other expenses must be covered, for which donations are sought.

"There's no way I can pull money away from the foundation, from the cats that are there, to go investigate something," Werner said of Tiger Missing Link's ability to provide funds. The non-profit foundation currently houses two cougars, a lion and nine tigers.

The snares were purchased at a cost of about $500.

"I don't keep these on hand as we don't do this everyday," he said.

People interested in seeing the cat captured alive have established a fund at the United National Bank in Natoma.

Total costs for capturing the cat are estimated at $5,000 with continued support estimated at $15,200 for habitat and an annual care cost of $2,400, according to Werner.

Werner said anyone who has seen the cat can report it to local authorities, or to his foundation - anonymously - through its toll-free number, (800)999-6710. Callers will need to enter the number 9916117 to access the foundation's voice mail.