Phantom Panther Gives Italians Paws for Thought

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Authorities have mounted a show of force, to impress the locals. One vehicle, sometimes two, stands parked on the only hard-top road leading into the wooded hills south of Prata, to remind locals to take care and to keep strangers out. The officers don't tend to venture out of the cars. And when it gets dark, they drive home. No patrols have been sighted on the narrow, dark forest paths leading to the farms or holiday homes, not even in daylight.

Daring Pursuers

Sometimes a daring armed squad equipped with strong lamps on the roof of their vehicle drives up to houses along the street and reminds residents to remain in their homes and to keep their pets indoors. And to call them, or better still the local vet, if the beast makes an appearance. The vet has a tranquilizer gun -- but it usually takes him two hours to arrive. People have also been told to give the cage traps that have been set up a wide berth, because it may scare off the cat.

But still the panther remains at large. He or she has an abundance of deer, wild boar, rabbits and other fresh livestock at his or her disposal in the wild. And there is no shortage of sheep in the fields.

And if the cat was ever tempted to sniff around the cages, it would probably change its mind because forestry workers and police officers tend to whistle, shout and bang the bars with metal rods whenever they exchange the bait -- to make themselves feel a little safer while they're going about their dangerous work.

Automatic cameras have been positioned along narrow paths to find out what routes the animal takes. Panthers, experts say, wander up to 10 kilometers a night. Which presumably renders a photo from the previous night pretty useless.

What is to be done? Hunters say the dangerous animal should be driven out of the forest by beaters, and killed. Farmers say "give us guns, we'll take care of it." But animal welfare groups are up in arms at the suggestion, and have reminded the people of Prata that panthers are a protected species. They won't even accept putting out live bait such as chickens or rabbits.

Memories of Bruno

The controversy echoes the tale of Bruno the brown bear who wandered into Germany from Austria and eluded hunters for weeks, gorging himself on live sheep and honey, until he was shot dead, to the dismay of his many fans.

The police would rather just leave. After all, the chances of catching the cat seem pretty remote.

A vague hope remains: that Bagheera's former owner might return to pick up his pet. Police have made enquiries with every circus and every zoo for miles around to see if anyone is missing a panther. No one is. Officials assume that some rich show-off had a panther cub and got rid of it when it grew too big. Experts say that if the owner came back, the beast might just hop back in its cage.

The former owner may be pretty stupid. But he's unlikely to be so stupid to show his face round here to be greeted by police and a hefty fine.

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