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A lion roams Milwaukee... Something I've seen before
by Pam Rotella
26 July 2015

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - For the past several days, the national press has been fascinated by video of a lion- or cougar-like animal in Milwaukee. Although cougars have been spotted elsewhere in Wisconsin, this footage was captured in the city of Milwaukee, a densely populated area. That gives the story a public safety slant... and an excuse for CNN to play the Tokens' old song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Now the Milwaukee press is reporting that the lion/cougar has been sighted by a police officer responding to a citizen's sighting from yesterday. Apparently the police tried to contain the cougar or lion last night, but the search continued into Sunday morning because despite seeing the animal, they were unable to find it. There were even reports by onlookers of a cub with the animal.

While I'm somewhat surprised that the Milwaukee Police are putting so much effort into the search, I'm not surprised by the footage of the "Milwaukee Lion." It reminds me of a cat I saw several years ago near Milwaukee, although the recent footage shows an animal that is slightly larger and more muscular than the cougar I saw. Is this the same animal, but older and heavier, with better-developed muscles?

My old sighting was in the suburban area of Greenfield, just south of Milwaukee near Greendale. This was very early in the morning, possibly the 3-4 a.m. range. For wildlife photographers, having the discipline to get up in the middle of the night to arrive at a distant location just before sunrise is a way of life. Those pictures of Operation Migration flying whooping cranes around for the past couple of years -- in a remote rural area near Princeton, Wisconsin just after sunrise -- didn't come from sleeping in late!

On the morning of the cougar sighting, I was heading out early to go birding at Horicon Marsh, hoping to get some early morning shots of night herons, blue herons, and other birds before morning traffic drove them from fishing holes closest to the roads.

I'd just started my journey heading west out of the city on I-894 when a large cat ran across the freeway in front of my car, near the Forest Home exit. The animal was large and yellow with huge paws and a long, big cat's tail. Its head looked like a cougar's, which of course is also similar to a young lioness' head, and its body was as large as a big dog's. The animal was running so fast across the road that in order to stop as it reached the grassy area to the side of the road, it lowered its rump in a sitting-down-like move. I've seen that posture on nature shows about lions, a sort of redirection of energy.

So I called 911 and reported the cougar. I had mixed feelings about that -- I knew that police probably couldn't tranquilize the cat if they found it, and so their only option was shooting. But the cat was in an urban area, without any prey animals other than household pets, small children, and the occasional bird or rodent. There were schools and shopping centers within a few miles. I had to think of the cat's potential human victims.

I also knew that police would have difficulty finding the cat, even if they arrived within five minutes of the sighting. It was on the move, and nobody knew where it was going.

I went to Horicon Marsh that day, but later I did see evidence that the police had looked for the cat. While driving past the Forest Home exit again, I saw row after row of trampled long grass in a pattern that showed they walked up and down like a lawn mower hoping to flush it out.

Later there would be other reports on the news of a big cat sighting, and news anchors at first didn't seem to know what to make of them. I recall e-mailing one station, asking to be kept anonymous, explaining what I saw. I noticed that they seemed to take the sightings a little more seriously after that.

I don't recall the time frame of those old sightings, other than they happened sometime between 2009 and 2012. WISN reports that "The DNR said there have been 169 reports of possible sightings of mountain lions or cougars since 2011. Only eight of them were confirmed." The article refers to some trail cam photos, and I saw one of those at a hotel where I was staying in Central Wisconsin -- the hotel manager printed it and showed it to guests for their own safety.

In 2013, a cougar was shot in Illinois, and so at the time I assumed that was the cat I'd seen near Milwaukee, probably migrating down from northern or central Wisconsin where the occasional cougar is seen on trail cams, apparently running across the freeway in Milwaukee on its way to Illinois, where conservation police couldn't tolerate its presence near a residence.

Now I wonder if the cat was in Milwaukee the entire time, packing on pounds from whatever it's eating, maybe even finding a mate and giving birth. I'm sure we'll learn more if the DNR or Milwaukee Police manage to track it down, hopefully capturing or sedating it rather than shooting and killing.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee is awaiting its removal and the determination of its species. Despite not knowing whether the animal is a cougar or African lion, animal advocates are using the sightings to advocate a change in Wisconsin law, to ban ownership of exotic pets.

I'm sure we'll learn more about the animal over the next few days as this story unfolds.

All original content including photographs © 2015 by Pam Rotella.