Saturday, May 3, 2003

Wildcat scare keeps Palmyra pupils inside / DNR officials doubt it

By Lisa Kermet, Staff Writer

Springfield State Journal-Register

PALMYRA – The wildcat is the mascot of the Northwestern School District, but no one there ever expected to see a live one.

But students at Northwestern spent recess indoors earlier this week after a maintenance man reported seeing a black wildcat roaming a field near the school in northern Macoupin County, about 30 miles southwest of Springfield.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Carol Knowles expressed doubts, saying, “It would be extremely rare for one of these animals to be around.”

Northwestern’s head of maintenance, Allen Frakes, said he had stepped outside the grade school Monday morning when he “saw something black” in a newly tilled farm field. The distance between him and the animal was about a football field and a half, he said.

Frakes, a turkey hunter, first thought the creature was a turkey or dog until he looked through a pair of binoculars.

“I thought, ‘That isn’t a big old dog, that’s a big old cat,'” Frakes said Friday. “I said, ‘There’s nobody going to believe me.'”

So he fetched a custodian and three cooks to see the creature. Frakes estimated that the animal was up to 21/2 feet tall and up to 4 feet long, with a tail three-fourths as long as the body. The cat came close enough to be seen without binoculars, he said.

“It was beautiful to watch him,” Frakes said. “It had that cat walk. That tail kind of curved down and back up.”

Frakes and his four co-workers reported what they’d seen to Northwestern School Superintendent Lawrence Naeger, who was skeptical at first.

“I had to hear it from more than one,” Naeger said.

The superintendent kept pupils indoors during recess. He also forbade anyone from walking the 100 yards or so between the elementary and high schools, insisting that they ride a shuttle instead.

“The note I sent home to the parents was, ‘An exotic animal was seen near the school,’ ” Naeger said.

Naeger called police, who alerted the state conservation police. A DNR police sergeant talked by phone to someone at the school, said Knowles.

“There’s no such thing as a black panther,” the agency spokeswoman said. “There’s a black leopard, and they’re so rare that there’s no way they could be walking around.”

The sergeant asked to be notified if the animal were spotted a second time, but it has not been seen since.

“Certainly, if we thought we had a bona fide sighting of an exotic animal, we would have looked into it further,” Knowles said.

Asked how often the state agency receives reports of sightings of exotic animals, she said, “Every once in a while. Usually they come a little closer to the full moon than this.”