By Jeff Lehr
NEOSHO, Mo. — A Newton County deputy shot and killed a large, black cat of uncertain species Monday morning when the animal, either a leopard or a jaguar, charged him.
Capt. Richard Leavens of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department said Vickie Sanders, 61, called shortly after 6 a.m. Monday to report what she took to be “a black panther” at the door of her home at 9555 Orchid Drive, southwest of Neosho.
When Cpl. Donn Hall of the Sheriff’s Department arrived, he spotted a large, black cat standing on its hind legs and pawing at a storm door of the home.
“When he got out of his car, it charged him,” Leavens said. “He fired on it and wounded it. It ran past him to the end of the driveway and then came back at him.”
Hall left his patrol car with a shotgun and fired two shots on the cat’s initial charge, Leavens said. As the cat charged a second time, Hall fired additional shotgun blasts and then pulled his .45-caliber Glock handgun, he said.
“It took several shots with that to get one that took effect,” Leavens said.
Hall escaped any injury from the cat, as did Sanders and her dogs, Leavens said.
Sanders had been hanging some laundry on a clothesline in her yard when the cat appeared and started toward her, Leavens said. She told the Sheriff’s Department that one of her dogs “intercepted” the cat, allowing her time to get inside her home along with her dogs.
The cat then began pawing on the door of the home and kept it up until Hall arrived, Leavens said.
A state Conservation Department officer was called to the scene after the animal was killed. While the species of the animal was not immediately certain, the suspicion was that it was not accustomed to living in the wild.
“This most likely was a kept animal that either had been dumped out or had gotten away,” Leavens said.
He said officers could see, after it had been killed, that its claws had been surgically removed.
He said there has been some speculation that the cat might have been on the loose in the wake of the recent tornado damage in the region.
The animal’s body was taken to Scott’s Taxidermy in Newton County. James Dixon, a wildlife damage biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation office in Springfield, went there to take a look at it late Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re going to have to do some further research to tell exactly what it is,” Dixon told the Globe after his initial look. “It’s either a leopard or a jaguar.”
Leopards are native to both Africa and Asia, with black leopards found in Africa. Jaguars are indigenous to South America, Central America and certain parts of the southwestern United States. But black jaguars are practically unheard of in the United States.
“When you look at it very closely, you can see spots,” Dixon said of the animal that was killed.
He said it will require some skull and teeth measurements to ascertain the species. Tissue samples could be taken if those measurements are not conclusive, he said.
The fatal shot appeared to have been a round from the Glock that struck the cat in the chest, Dixon said.
Even the weight of the animal remained uncertain Tuesday. The Sheriff’s Department had estimated it at 50 to 60 pounds, the taxidermist at 40 pounds. Dixon said the animal appeared to have been well-fed, even fat, perhaps from having been kept in a cage. But its stomach seemed empty, which might explain its behavior, he said.
“He could have just been coming around looking for a handout,” Dixon said. “Who knows what it was thinking? But that’s pretty odd behavior.”
Jaguars and leopards are seldom seen in the wild because they sense humans long before humans see them and usually have no interest, Dixon said. He said the Department of Conservation does not regulate either leopards or jaguars because neither is deemed a species indigenous to Missouri.
“I guess the important thing about this from a conservation standpoint is that people should know there is not a population of large, black cats wreaking havoc across southern Missouri,” he said.
Large cats are required to be registered with sheriff’s departments in Missouri, but this cat was not registered with the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, Capt. Richard Leavens said.