By FRANK PHILLIPS
There are apparently more wild cats running around Center Point than at first thought, Sheriff Mike Heaton told the Clay County Farm Bureau Crackerbarrel meeting Saturday morning.
The cougar that has been on the prowl, outside its cage since it escaped from its cage with a 14-foot high fence and a second, much lower fence, is only the first reported escape, the sheriff said. And that word, reported, is important.
"This has been our first reported escape, but if you ask neighbors, there have been other unreported escapes," Heaton said.
In those instances, owner Joe Taft was able to coax the animals back into their cages, the sheriff said.
Since Jan. 5, the sheriff's department has received many calls from people who believed they saw the escaped cougar and those calls are eating away at his budget in a way he and the county council hadn't anticipated.
Heaton has learned the federal government really doesn't regulate exotic animals, such as the nearly 200 wild cats housed at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center near Center Point. He wants the county and state to start regulating the animals.
The rescue center is in a heavily wooded area. If a tornado cause trees to crash down on the fences, lions and tigers as well as cougars could escape and begin hunting in a populated area.
The problem is not limited to Clay County, the sheriff said. Other counties in the state are home to wild animals that are being housed by residents.
He cited an instance when a black bear escaped for its cage and had to be captured.
Clay County Commissioner Charlie Brown and Dept. of Natural Resources Director Rob Carter are working on the problem, said Rep. Amos Thomas (R-Brazil). Carter lives in Clay County and is aware of the problem.
"I will (also) talk to the DNR director and see if he has any ideas, said Rep. Vern Tincher (D-Riley).