Kentuckians are seeing big cats in the wild; are they real wildcats?

FRANKFORT — Are big cats gathering in Wildcat Nation?

For years, residents throughout Kentucky have reported seeing large cats: mountain lions, also called cougars or panthers.

"I get calls all the time," said state Rep. Fitz Steele, a Democrat who represents Perry and Harlan counties in Eastern Kentucky. "They're convinced that they've seen them."

The state's top wildlife official told a legislative committee Thursday that reported sightings have never been confirmed or verified in Kentucky, although there have been confirmed sightings of big cats in Ohio.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett told the Program Review and Investigations Committee that there is a small population of panthers in southern Florida, but that it's unlikely they would travel as far as Kentucky.

Gassett said it's possible that some of the sightings are of pet cats that have been released into the wild. A decade ago, it was not illegal in Kentucky to own a mountain lion or other large cat as a pet. Lawmakers have since changed those rules, but there might be domesticated big cats, which have probably been declawed and had their canines removed, still in the wild.

In 2010, Harrison County residents were convinced that a large cat had moved into the county when a resident there reported that his dog was attacked twice and later died from wounds inflicted by a large animal that some described as having a body and tail like a lion, but a head that was different.

Dozens of people in Harrison County reported seeing the animal, but it wasn't a mountain lion, Gassett said. It wasn't even a cat.

"It was a dog," he said.

In 2012, an animal that people described as a mountain lion was spotted outside of Ashland's city limits. In 2007, residents in Campbell County swore they saw something that looked like a mountain lion. Hunters in Western Kentucky have also reported seeing large cats in Graves and other counties for years.

Gassett told lawmakers Thursday that it's not illegal to shoot wildcats in Kentucky, unless the animals are Florida panthers, which are federally protected.

If someone shoots one of the mystery creatures, Fish and Wildlife would like to examine the body and determine whether it's a former domestic animal or a true wildcat, Gassett said.

Steele said that won't be a problem in Harlan and Perry counties.

"Commissioner, you know my district," Steele said. "If they see it, it's going to the ground."