Phantom Panther Gives Italians Paws for Thought

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A large black cat believed to be a panther is stalking the fields and forests of southern Tuscany, striking fear into residents and holidaymakers. Hunters have angered animal rights campaigners by offering to kill it, but the debate is academic -- "Bagheera" is running rings around its pursuers.

The blissfully peaceful rhythm of life in the olive groves and forests of southern Tuscany has been rudely disrupted this month by repeated sightings of a large black beast around the medieval Tuscan village of Prata, a few kilometers from the tourist center of Massa Marittima.

"Until now, we looked out for vipers on the ground when we walked around outside," said Antonella Boddi, a local farmer. "These days we're looking up first, into the trees." That's where the animal -- believed to be a panther -- might be lurking.

Dozens of police, forestry workers and wildlife experts have descended on this beautiful, sparsely populated region to track down the elusive predator. They have attached warning notices to trees instructing people how to behave if they encounter it. Officials decided last week that it should be caught alive. But no one knows how to do that.

It's unclear who saw the panther first. In early August, Riccardo Pini, who owns a holiday home nearby, told people in the village that he had seen a large black cat twice in five days and that it was "quite obviously a black panther." He said he saw it clearly and for a long time. Pini runs a business near Florence. He bought his summer retreat here back in 1974.

He had been planning to retire here in a few years, but he's no longer quite so sure about that. Pini refuses to set foot in Prata. The villagers accused him of lying. Some said he just wanted the planned village festival to be cancelled. Others claimed he wanted to keep mushroom gatherers out of the woods so that he could keep more for himself. Pini, furious at the accusations, says he'll keep quiet in future, "even if I see a herd of elephants."

But then, Bruno Sani, the father of a member of parliament no less, reported that he was missing two sheep, two goats and two piglets. Droppings and paw prints indicated that a large cat was the culprit. Further panther spotters came forward. The authorities took over the case. And shortly afterwards, two forestry workers saw and photographed the predator.

'This Moment Seemed Endless'

They said the beast had been lying in a meadow, looking quite relaxed. When they took a few steps towards it, the animal stood up and looked at them. "This moment seemed endless," the brave duo told a reporter from the local newspaper, Corriere di Maremma.

Further "moments of panic and indecision" followed before the sinister beast finally turned away and slowly padded off into the forest. The photo shows a black blotch whose outlines resemble an animal. But the men have "no doubt that it was a panther."

Since then, local papers have been carrying daily stories about the hunt for "Bagheera," named after the friendly panther from Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." The locals find the beast a tad less cuddly, however. They're afraid. Most of the buildings have no fences, and terraces and gardens open out onto meadows, bushes and woods. Evening life takes place outdoors around here. At least, it used to.

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