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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 30, 2003

For Maui, it was year of the cat

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

OLINDA, Maui — Nearly a year after sightings of a large exotic animal began spreading around this rural community, some are left wondering whether the big cat was ever out there in the first place.

The mystery cat of Olinda remains as mysterious as ever.

The hunt has come up empty-handed despite help from two big-game experts from Arizona and the use of high-tech trapping approaches, including infrared cameras that take pictures at night.

DNA analysis of suspected big-cat fur has so far been unable to provide any answers, and last week 19 leg-hold snare traps were disengaged three weeks after they had been set up. Officials said they were putting the hunt on hold until new, credible reports emerge.

Robert Schmidt, a Utah State University professor, certified wildlife biologist and part-time Hawai'i resident, has expressed his doubts that there ever was a big cat.

Schmidt has compared the Maui cat to the legendary Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. In a formal presentation last week at a wildlife conference in Reno, Nev., he said there appears to be no genuine evidence supporting the cat's existence.

In his presentation, he lumped Maui's cat in with mystery cats in Kansas and Wales and told of a burgeoning worldwide phenomenon of unexplained big-cat sightings, including incidents in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and large parts of the United States. While some of the sightings are legitimate, he said, the vast majority are not.

As for Maui, "there very well could be a big cat, but I just highly doubt it," he said.

Schmidt isn't the only skeptic when it comes to the Maui cat. Some Olinda residents are having their doubts as well.

"A lot of neighbors around us are skeptical," declared Ed Mee.

Mee said he has never talked with anyone who has seen the animal up close. "It's always a friend who saw it," he said.

Mee recalls the night his golden retriever suddenly became agitated and how he nervously took his flashlight outside expecting to see a large leopard. Instead, he confronted a big tomcat.

"It really is a Loch Ness monster thing," he said.

Neighbor James Krueger is also wondering whether the mysterious cat is real. If any large carnivore were loose in the wilds of Olinda, he said, it couldn't survive without killing more animals than the carcasses that have been found so far.

Krueger, a lawyer, said he has never heard or seen anything that resembles a big cat near his Pi'iholo Road home. Even so, he carries a revolver with him at night when he walks his dogs.

"I'd really like to see it taken care of," he said.

Whitney White is a believer. She saw a large, black, catlike creature walking down her

Olinda driveway on a recent Saturday — and it wasn't her black Labrador retriever, which came running around the other side of the house. Later, wildlife officials found what appeared to be large cat prints on her property.

White, who works with dogs for a living, admitted that if the big-cat story hadn't been going around, she would have dismissed the incident.

"All I can say is that I thought I saw it. It was definitely something large. Not a dog," she said.

Glenn Coryell, a 32-year Olinda resident, didn't believe the big-cat story from the beginning, and none of the expert conclusions or news accounts since has changed his mind.

Coryell said he remains convinced that pit bulls were responsible for two deer kills. He also suspects that a neighbor's wandering black dog with a long tail is what's behind many of the reported big-cat sightings.

Coryell said the dearth of large-animal kills also strengthens his doubts. He lives at what he called ground zero for the big cat, and he owns potbellied pigs, geese and chickens that are "ripe for the harvesting," but none have been touched. Very few large animals roam the forest above Olinda, and even hunters have had trouble finding wild pigs, he said.

The legend of a big cat has been circulating on Maui for 15 years or so, he said. In recent years, the cat has been reported in Makena, in Ha'iku. When the Olinda cat hit the news, sightings were reported all over the island.

"He's been everywhere. He even goes on vacation with Bigfoot," Coryell said.

The visiting Arizona big-cat experts have pointed to photos of deer kills and large claw marks on trees — along with the sightings and reports of hearing the big cat — as the strongest evidence of the Maui cat.

When the sightings stopped last month, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman Peter T. Young offered three possible reasons: The animal moved to a less populated area, or it returned to an owner and is being confined, or it's dead.

Schmidt, who lives in Manoa in the summer, offers a fourth possibility: "It wasn't there in the first place."

Could this simply be a large feral cat? Determining size can be a tricky matter to the untrained eye, especially at dawn, dusk or at night, he said.

Schmidt teaches a course that includes a segment on wildlife damage assessment. He said it's extraordinarily easy to draw conclusions without a proper assessment.

While admitting he hasn't visited Olinda, Schmidt said it still seems the body of evidence is weak. He said he certainly believes something catlike is out there, but he doubts it's a leopard or a jaguar.

If it were a leopard or jaguar, more dead deer, pigs, dogs and cats would be found. "They are hunters of large animals. They eat large things," he said.

As for claw marks left on trees, he said, other animals could do that.

If the big cat had been raised by humans, as state wildlife officials suspect, then it would be accustomed to coming in contact with people, approaching humans more readily and perhaps begging for food, he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880, or e-mail at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.