(MAYSVILLE, OK) - The head of an exotic animal park has halted his search for a loose black leopard after allegations that the cat hunt was a publicity stunt.
``The phone's been ringing off the hook since the panther was first spotted _ some callers reporting sightings of every black lab in the county _ some accusing us of letting our panther out for publicity purposes,'' Heidi Somers, with G.W. Exotic Animal Park said Wednesday.
Joe Schreibvogel, the park's director, said the park has a black leopard, but that is has been confined to a pen for several years.
Schreibvogel set up a trap to catch the animal, commonly called a panther, after the Garvin County sheriff contacted him.
Maysville resident Dana Stanbery reported seeing the animal last month as she was leaving her mother-in-law's house one night. Stanbery said the animal jumped in front of her car and placed its paws on the hood.
Schreibvogel, who removed the trap for the animal on Tuesday, said he saw the animal, too.
He says game wardens have been harassing him, and that he has hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit.
``Dennis Maxwell (the Wildlife Department's assistant chief of law enforcement) told us to go ahead and set the trap. He needs to tone his officers down because I've had enough,'' Schreibvogel said.
Maxwell couldn't be reached for comment, but Richard Hatcher, state Wildlife Conservation Department assistant director, said he was unaware of any harassment.
Hatcher said the department lacks jurisdiction and won't take over the search unless there is a confirmed leopard sighting and the animal seems to pose a threat.
Darlene Stanbery, the mother-in-law of the woman who reported the loose leopard, said she saw the leopard earlier this week near her home and fears for her dogs' safety.
``He's getting very aggressive, very close to the house, and he doesn't care if we're out here or not,'' she said.
Schreibvogel saw the animal tracks and came to the conclusion there are two panthers _ a male with 5-inch-wide feet and a smaller female. That's one reason, he said, so many residents continue to report sightings.
Such animals are not indigenous to the United States. There has never been a confirmed sighting of a free-ranging black ``panther'' in Oklahoma, according to the Wildlife Department.
Schreibvogel said any black leopards spotted in Oklahoma have escaped or have been released by breeders.