Some Vineland residents were keeping a close eye on their small children and pets yesterday, fearful that a panther might be roaming in the woods behind a small cul de sac.
A large black feline with a very long tail was spotted by several residents over the weekend in the rural Cumberland County town.
"It does sound farfetched," said resident Zoe Paraskevas, "but I know what I saw."
Paraskevas first saw the big cat in March, but when she told her friends and relatives they didn't believe her.
"They all laughed at me," she said.
Now she has pictures to show them. Paraskevas shot several pictures of it early Saturday morning as it prowled through an open field.
But even with the photographic evidence, she is finding it difficult to convince local police and state wildlife officials that big game may be lurking in her South Jersey community.
A local animal control officer went to her house to examine the photographs, but dismissed the animal in the pictures as an overweight house cat.
"This animal was big, really big," Paraskevas said. "It could be the size of a German shepherd. More than 80 pounds for sure. They're saying they found a 20- to 30-pound cat in the field. But something that size would be a speck at 150 yards."
In addition, Paraskevas said some of her neighbors had heard what they described as growls coming from the line of nearby trees. They said it was like a rumble.
"It was nothing like what a kitty cat would make," she said.
A conservation officer was dispatched Saturday from the state Department of Environmental Protection to investigate. He walked the fields twice looking for tracks and scat, said Darlene Yuhas, a DEP spokeswoman, but found nothing.
The officer returned on Sunday but came up empty-handed.
"Panthers are not native to New Jersey," Yuhas said. "But I suppose anything is possible. We are not taking the report lightly, but at this point there's nothing that tells us there's a panther in the area."
There has never been a confirmed report of a panther on the loose in the state of New Jersey, Yuhas said.
The idea of a black panther in the area was so unheard of that when the department first received the report, officers thought someone was talking about the Black Panther Party, a political organization, said Lt. Steve Cleveland of the Vineland police.
Nevertheless, dozens of Vineland residents are sure there's something out there.
After a report on the cat aired on television Monday night, police headquarters was deluged with calls. More than 30 people dialed in saying they had seen the animal during the last month, said Capt. Rudy Beu.
"But have we seen this animal today? No," Beu said. "Have we ever seen it? No, no and no. No one has verified the existence of this animal."
Beau said the photos Paraskevas took were too blurry to be conclusive.
"It's a very distant shot of what looks like a very large catlike animal," Beu said. "But we have no idea what it is."
The neighbors aren't taking any chances. Eighteen young children live on the cul de sac, Old Farm Drive.
Felicia Fiocchi saw the cat Sunday morning after her husband called her to the window.
"We both saw it," she said. "And I'm sure it wasn't a house cat."
Fiocchi said she had seen plenty of wildlife behind her house, but it had been limited to rabbits, wild turkey and the occasional deer. The latest sighting has left the mother of four shaken. Her older children, ages 9 and 7, are restricted to the front yard. The younger ones, 3 and 22 months, she won't let out to play at all.
"And I don't know if we'll ever let them play in the woods again," she said.
Paraskevas said her two boys, Dmitri, 11, and Alexi, 8, won't be allowed to stray more than a few yards from her house. She's keeping a tight leash on her beagle, Sparky, too.