Nature has a strange way of giving us surprises. Just when we think we have it all figured out there can be mysteries and anomalies that coming speeding out from beyond to leave us startled and baffled. One such enigma is the phenomenon of out of place animals, where all manners of wildlife have popped up in the last place where one expect, and certainly ranking high up among these are the various reports of what can only be described as full African lions roaming about North America.
What has come to be mostly known as the “American Maned Lion,” is more often than not described as being a large, cream or golden-colored cat measuring around 5 to 8 feet in length and approximately 3 feet high at the shoulder, with shaggy hair and a very noticeable mane, and the cat will sometimes even be described as having spots or stripes. Reports of some sort of large, maned mystery cat in America go back well into history. In 1797, a man named Peter Pentz allegedly shot and killed a large cat of some type at Bald Eagle Mountain, Pennsylvania, which had a matted mane and was very much like an African lion. In this case, the mysterious big cat had been blamed for a killing spree of cattle in the area, and its bloody reign was only brought to an end with its apparent extermination. It is unclear just what happened to the carcass after this and we are left to wonder.
Another of these supposed “lions” was shot and killed in 1868, near Lake County, California. Hunter Archie McMath apparently tracked the animal down and took it out of the picture after it had terrorized the region, and it was reported as measuring around 11 feet long, possessing black stripes along its shoulders. In the late 19th century there was also a spate of sightings of some sort of maned big cat, possibly a lion, in parts of North Carolina, which was referred to as the Santer. The cat was typically described as being about the size of a very large puma, with a beige coat that was sometimes said to be striped lengthwise down the body. Whatever it was, it stopped being sighted in the area after the 1890s, going off to who knows where.
In 1917, a lioness and cub were apparently sighted in the state of Georgia, and in August of 1919 there was a report from the Syracuse Daily Journal, which told of farmers near an area called Union Springs, New York, spotting a mysterious large cat with a “head like a lion” prowling about their properties and terrorizing the livestock. One farmer by the name of John Redman claimed that the mystery beast had attacked and bit the tail off one of his cattle. Although the farmers got together to try and hunt the creature down, they never did find it.
Throughout the 1940s to the 1950s there were reports as well. In 1948 there was a maned lion seen prowling about with, oddly enough, a partner in the form of a mysterious black panther near the town of Elkhorn Falls, Indiana. In 1954 a farmer named Arnold Neujahr apparently spotted an “African lion” in Surprise, Nebraska, and other sightings would follow, sparking a full-blown hunt for the creature. It was never found. Another lion was supposedly seen farther north near Kapuskasing, Ontario, in 1960, when a farmer named Leo Paul Dallaire watched one prowl about his farm, complete with a bushy tip to its tail. In that same year a farmer in the state of Georgia claimed to have shot and killed a lion that had been terrorizing and killing his livestock, although it is unclear just what happened to the body although there is supposedly a photo of it.
The following year would see a minor hysteria break out in the area of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in February of 1961, when there was a deluge of reports to police of people seeing a very large wild cat of some type prowling about. What would go on to be known as the Milwaukee Lion was seen by numerous respectable, reliable witnesses, and was even sighted by several police officers, and there were plaster casts apparently made of its prints. The cat seemed to favor the western suburbs, and startled many homeowners as it crossed yards, leapt fences, and apparently sometimes let out a loud yelp or squeal.
Police searched for the phantom cat but were unsuccessful, the only evidence those tracks left behind. There was some speculation that this was a large mountain lion being seen, but these animals are no more native to the area than African lions. One taxidermist named Walter Pelzer believed it to be a misidentified large dog, and would say, “It’s just like the flying saucer bit. The possibility of a mountain lion roaming the greater Milwaukee area is about as remote as finding the abominable snowman on Holy Hill.”
Whatever it was did not seem to bother any pets or livestock in the area, and sightings abruptly stopped as suddeny as they had started. Moving into the 1970s, in 1979 sightings continued when what was described as a large male African lion was witnessed to roam about in the Coyote Hills Regional Park, near Fremont, California. In later years still we have a series of sightings of a maned cat near Mentor, Ohio, in 1992, which was rather hilariously written off by authorities as being a misidentified golden retriever dog, despite witnesses being adamant that it was a maned lion and no dog. In June of 1996 there was a sighting of an apparent lion near Spokane, Washington, at a place called Canyon Drive. Witness Belen Grabb claimed that she had been driving through when she saw what he described as a large African lion casually stroll across a nearby golf course. She stopped her car to watch it and said that it was a dark beige in color with a full brown mane. The sighting prompted an intense search for the beast by authorities, but no trace was found.
Sightings of large, lion-like cats in America have persisted well into the 2000s as well. 2002 saw maned mystery cat sightings pop up all over the place. In Niles, Michigan a whole family, the Youngs, spotted a massive, cream-colored cat with a long tail wandering about right outside of their home. They immediately went to a neighbor who was a hunter, after which they examined the area to find the pugmarks of some large cat. More similar reports would come in from throughout the area, but no cat was ever found, and it is unknown if this was a lion, an out-of-place cougar, or what.
Also from September of 2002 was a series of sightings near Quitman, Arkansas, which ended in four large maned lions being allegedly shot and killed, although no DNA analysis was done on them and the bodies were apparently promptly destroyed. It was speculated that the cats had been escapees from a nearby safari park called Safari Unlimited, but the park denied having lost any animals. Later that very same month two witnesses named Troy Guy and Ashley Clawson would claim to have spotted a maned big cat as they drove along Poga Road in Carter County, Tennessee. Another witness named Evelyn Cable also saw the beast standing by the side of the road while driving along Highway 321, and described it as an African lion with a thick mane.
In July of 2008 there were sightings of something similar in El Paso County, Colorado, near Colorado Springs. Three separate witnesses came forward claiming to have seen a lion with a red mane and a long, tufted tail, and one of them even claimed to have photographed it chasing dogs. There would be two additional cell-phone photos presented by a witness named Sharon Harding Shaw, as well as tracks found, which convinced authorities that the animal was definitely not a cougar, but rather what appeared to be an actual African lion, although where it could have possibly come from is a mystery. A nearby big cat sanctuary called the Serenity Springs and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, as well as three other animal sanctuaries, all claimed to not be missing any big cats. An official investigation and search was undertaken but no big cat could be located.
Most recently of all we come back to the old stomping grounds of the Milwaukee Lion of the 1960s, where yet another mysterious maned big cat was widely sighted in 2015, which would captivate the nation and lead police on a wild goose chase all over the city. Sightings began on July 20, when authorities received 14 calls from frightened locals claiming to have seen the animal roaming around right out in the open on city streets. Over the coming week the cat would be seen by numerous other witnesses, as well as police officers, and there was cellphone video footage of the mystery cat presented as well. One witness named Herbert Ball said of his own scary sighting:
She was walking down the hill sideways, putting her feet crossways. She was snooping down with her head, like she was fixing to attack somebody. The people over there were having a cookout … and I ran over there to tell them there’s a cat coming their way. But what the cat did is change her mind -- she went under the bridge and relaxed.
This particular sighting prompted a massive police response, with officers setting up a dragnet on an bridge overlooking a ravine and positioning snipers around to take the potentially dangerous animal down if need be. Two of the officers even said they saw the cat pas through, but it was gone into thick brush before a proper response could be mounted. Indeed, the cat was very good at evading all attempts to capture or find it, eluding several checkpoints set up by heavily armed officers trying to capture it and even foiling K-9 units. It was also exceptionally good at not being photographed, except for a single grainy video, leading to skepticism on whether there was really anything out there at all, but police were certain that something was indeed causing the sightings, leading to speculation as to where it had come from.
One idea was that it was a cougar, while another idea was that it was an escaped African lion, either from a zoo or someone’s private exotic animal collection. This would not be so far-fetched, as Wisconsin is one of the only states that does not prohibit the importation of lions. However, all wildlife sanctuaries in the area, including the Milwaukee zoo, reported that they had no missing animals, and if this was privately owned big cat the owner had not reported it. One official would make a lea to the public for the potential owner to come forward, saying:
Whoever this cat belongs to, this is for real. If you don’t want the cat, you should have called the zoo, even Animal Control. You didn’t have to let the cat run free in the city. You’ve got innocent people walking the street in Milwaukee.
The prospect of a very dangerous animal wandering about such an urban area did not seem to deter droves of onlookers traipsing about trying to get a glimpse of the “lion,” despite warnings from police to stay away. The animal would go on to be widely seen by both civilians, animal control officers, and law enforcement personnel, causing quite a media sensation, and despite numerous searches, dragnets, and stakeouts set out the wiley big cat was never found or captured. What was this mystery big cat and where did it go? No one knows.
When looking at the sheer number of supposed maned lion sightings from all over the United States we are left with a lot of questions. Where did they come from? What are they? Where did they go? The most common idea is that these are escaped exotic pets, and in some cases this might be the case, but there seems to rarely be any evidence of anyone missing such a large cat. Other ideas are that they are misidentified mountain lions or even large dogs.
Perhaps the most intriguing theory has been postulated by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, who wrote a whole chapter on American mystery lions in his book Mysterious America. In this theory some of the sightings are perhaps of a relic population of an ancient, thought-to-be-extinct big cat from the Pleistocene called Panthera atrox. These predators roamed all over North and South America around 9,000 years ago, and were around 25% larger on average than an adult African lion. Could some cases be surviving specimens of this formidable species? No one knows. Wherever the explanations lies, whether it be a long lost species, exotic escapees, or mere misidentifications, there is definitely a phenomenon with large mystery cats of the maned variety running around. Perhaps the answers will be clear at some point, but for now we just don’t know, and are left to speculate on the mysteries this world of ours has.