Lion Hunter 

One reporter's search for the elusive Salisbury cat.

click to enlarge news47_lion_200.jpg

It's a well-known fact that cats dislike water.

Lesser-known fact: So do reporters. They prefer beer.

Kicking around Bon Air under last Thursday's grim, dreary skies, there was plenty of water. Notably absent was beer.

Also absent: the now-legendary big cat of Bon Air and Salisbury.

Reports of this unidentified and elusive kitty prowling the tree lines of back yards over a broad swath of the county's west end have kept local media outlets buzzing for much of November. After weeks of watching breathless news reports that have included speculation that an African lion might be on the loose within spitting distance of Chesterfield Towne Center, it seemed only right to join the hunt.

Instead, I went to the Bon Air library and then to a nearby McDonald's for lunch.

Heck, it's as likely the mystery cat will be found prowling the historical biographies shelves as anywhere.
WTVR reporter John Burkett would probably disagree. 

“It was no domestic cat, my friend,” says Burkett, whose cameraman called his attention to what he thought was a large fox as the two finished interviewing a wildcat witness last week off Jahnke Road. “I turned around — I said ‘Holy crap, look at the size of that cat.’ It looked like it was going toward the garbage behind this apartment. … right across from St. John's Woods.”

The veteran television newsman reached for his trusty camera — which conveniently was out of film, Burkett says, identifying what he allegedly saw as a bobcat on account of the large head attached to its imaginary body: “I came back and nobody in the newsroom believed me. This was no domestic cat, I could have rode the son-of-a-gun to work.”

So to summarize, Burkett's best bet: a garbage-eating bobcat.

Or maybe, suggests Rick Busch with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, it's a variety of semi-domesticated exotic house pet, native to plains of central and eastern Africa.

“I had a lady in the front office who said she thought it might be her cat,” Busch says. “She had pictures of an African serval cat — a cat indigenous to the arid plains and savannas of Africa. She lost it more than a year ago.”

This woman's lost cat — servals stand more than two feet tall with spots like a leopard, striking facial features and smallish heads — was declawed, which may explain the lack of reports of half-eaten poodles to accompany the big cat sightings.

At the Bon Air McDonald's, a palpable tension hangs over the Thursday lunchtime crowd. The smell of fear is in the air. In fact, on second whiff, it's just atomized grease from the basket fryer.

 “I'll have a chicken sandwich and a water — and can I get two Alex the Lion action figures?” I ask at the counter.
“We don't have any more lions,” replies cashier Maya Winfree, offering instead a hippo or zebra Happy Meal action figure from the popular “Madagascar” movie. “We've been out of lions for about a week.”

Again, the Big Cat of Bon Air eludes capture.

As we leave the McDonald's, I casually throw the hippo and zebra Happy Meal toys in the back seat and start the car. Pulling into traffic, a low, eerie growl fills the car. “I know I'm every hippo's dream, wow.”

I've accidentally turned on the hippo toy while driving on busy Huguenot Road, adding to the otherwise underwhelming safari mood of the trip.

Nanci Clary, an administrator with the Chesterfield Library and a resident of the Salisbury area, is skeptical. “I really don't think there are any tigers,” she says, explaining: “Nobody's found any scat.”

For the record, scat is poop.

It's late afternoon, and steady downpour falls on flocks of sheep and llamas grazing nervously on a farm near Robious Road's junction with Route 288. The flock mentality is one of nature's oldest defensive mechanisms: Stick together to confuse the predator.

My car takes a pothole as we drive past the unsuspecting flock. The plastic hippo's low, amorous growl from the rear goes unheard to those outside my car: “I know I'm every hippo's dream, wow.”

Today, these sheep are safe. But tomorrow? S


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