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Herald and Review | Decatur, Illinois | May 12, 1999

Large cat-like animal has Clarksdale couple concerned

Experts debate what creature in question could be

By Tony Reid

H&R Staff Writer

CLARKSDALE -- Bev Ray loves all kinds of creatures, great and small.

But recently she met a new one that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.

"Early one morning, about a month ago, I was standing looking out my window when I saw a big black, panther-like animal walking across my yard," said Ray, 48.

"It was jet black, and it was just calmly walking along, not running or anything. And it was big. I saw it from less than a few hundred feet away, and it was really, really big. It walked through my yard and disappeared into some timber nearby."

Ray and husband Mike live in the country near Clarksdale about five miles south of Taylorville. They've been there since December and chose the spot because it has the room to house their extensive pet collection, which includes three Dalmatians, 14 Rottweilers, pheasants, quail, a llama, turkeys, rabbits, macaws and five ostriches due to arrive soon.

"I love animals, and I don't like to see them hurt," said Bev Ray, who gives homes to critters in need like the ostriches, which were due to be slaughtered after a farm went out of business. "The point is, I know what dogs and coyotes and other animals look like, and this black creature I saw wasn't one of them.

"It moved like a big cat, not a dog; you know, kind of slinking along. I'd say it was about one and a half times the size of my biggest Rottweiler. I wasn't too frightened at the time but later I got to thinking 'Did I really see that?' And I kept thinking about it, and I knew I really did see it and then it was like 'Oh, wow ...' "

Both Ray and her husband have found tracks close to their home that they measured at four inches across. They say heavy rain destroyed them before they could make casts, but now they are all set to take casts if the big cat comes back. They also have their camcorder and camera ready.

"You need something for people to believe you," said Mike Ray, 54, a retired truck driver. "Bev contacted the county sheriff, and he told us to just call the dog pound. People blow stories like this off, but we've really got something big living out here."

The Rays theorize the animal is either an escaped panther or maybe a black version of the mountain lion still found in remote parts of the United States. They aren't afraid for themselves but worry for their animals, which live outside in pens. They've even thought about trying to trap the beast and recently called up a radio "swap shop" show in Taylorville, trying to find someone with a cage big enough to hold a panther.

The Rays say there have been no reports of missing pets in the area, but are concerned that could change. "It's probably living off deer right now, but what if it comes through my yard one morning and it hasn't made a kill?" said Bev Ray. "Then it might decide to pick off one of my animals. I think someone needs to trap it or do something, but I don't want to see it harmed; it really is very beautiful."

Expert opinion is highly skeptical of the Rays' story but doesn't rule it out. "Give me a clear photograph, or a sighting by someone experienced, and then I can make a decision on whether this animal exists," said Terry Matthews, 57, chairman of the biology department at Millikin University.

Matthews said that if it is a black panther, which is a color variation of the leopard, it must be an escaped animal because leopards are not native to the United States. "And I am not aware of a melanic or black form of the mountain lion, which is a native U.S. species, ever being known," he added.

Joe Khayyat, a spokesman for Illinois' Department of Natural Resources, said state experts take the same view: If the animal exists, it must have escaped from somewhere, and it's "extremely unlikely" it would be native to Illinois. He said the Rays could report their sighting to the local district wildlife biologist at (618) 462-1181, who will look into it.

"We know you can't just completely and absolutely rule out that those folks did see something," added Khayyat.

But, native or otherwise, reports of black big cats prowling Central Illinois are nothing new. A game warden patrolling near Decatur shot at what he called a "panther" in 1955, and a Macon County sheriff's deputy shot at a similar creature in 1976 that he saw on land southwest of Decatur.

The Herald & Review library has clips on dozens of similar Central Illinois incidents, which is no surprise to former Decatur man Loren Coleman, who now lives in Maine and has a book coming out in August called "Cryptozoology A-Z" (Simon & Schuster, $13).

Coleman is a dedicated cryptozoologist, which is someone who studies animals rumored to exist -- like the Loch Ness monster -- but for which there is no hard evidence. "There are black panther sightings throughout Central and Southern Illinois and over in Indiana, where they are known as 'Varmints,' " said Coleman, 51, who teaches documentary film at the University of Southern Maine and sociology at St. Joseph's College in Portland.

"And in my book, I mention a Decatur sighting as far back as 1917 of an animal local reporters called 'Nellie,' which looked like a large female African lion."

Coleman doesn't buy arguments that a creature like a mountain lion couldn't exist for long in a state like Illinois without someone capturing or killing it. "There wouldn't be very many of them to begin with, and we're talking about very, very intelligent, highly secretive animals," he said.

Coleman describes himself as a conservationist but said there is only one way to prove the truth of these stories. "Unfortunately, we need a body," he said. "And I think that someday, someplace, somebody is going to hit one of these things on the highway or something and then, finally, we'll know."

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