WATKINSVILLE, Ga. -- School children at an Oconee County elementary school, Colham Ferry Elementary, went outside for their recess Friday afternoon with more adults than normal watching and supervising them, because of a possible sighting or two of a panther near the school.
But a skeptical spokeswoman for Georgia's Department of Natural Resources doubts anyone saw a panther in Oconee County.
"That animal does not exist in Georgia," Melissa Cummings of DNR told 11Alive News, period, end of story. Or is it?
School system administrators are skeptical, too. But Deborah Epps, the administrative assistant to the Superintendent, Dr. John Jackson, told 11Alive News that, "based on a phone call from our transportation department" that a school bus driver saw what the driver thinks is a panther near the school on Friday morning, and also because someone else also claims to have seen a panther in the area on Thursday, she emailed the school principal, Jackie Carson:
"We received word that there have been two separate sightings (yesterday and this morning) of a black panther (as in animal, not militant) in the area of CFES and Bell's Lake. It has been reported to Animal Control, but we have not heard back from them. It was also reported that there were small animals missing in the area (one being a calf.) Just thought you should know as a precaution. I doubt that an animal would approach children on a playground as they are so noisy, but we should probably make sure that all children are accompanied as they transfer from one building to another and someone should be monitoring the area around them when they are outside until we receive further word."
Dwayne Peterson of the Oconee County Schools Transportation Department would not identify, over the phone, the bus driver who saw the wild animal, but promised to get a message to him to call 11Alive News about it. "He's on a sports run tonight, he'll be out of touch for a while," Peterson said. "I don't have any details about it, at all."
Colham Ferry E.S. Assistant Principal Chuck Cunningham said the school is taking appropriate precautions. "We had recess [outside] this afternoon, as normal, with extra adult supervision."
Cunningham and Epps both said the Sheriff sent investigators to their offices on Friday in response to the possible sightings.
Sheriff Scott Berry was not available Friday afternoon to comment on what sort of investigation his office is conducting.
Oconee County Animal Control Director Catlin Vickers insisted Friday afternoon that no one called her office about seeing a panther. Her officers, she said, would not be able to capture a big, wild cat, anyway. "DNR has the equipment and the expertise to catch a wild animal" the size of a panther, she said.
The DNR spokeswoman, Melissa Cummings, said panthers and cougars simply do not and cannot live in Georgia. "There's the Florida panther, and the western cougar," and Georgia does not provide a livable habitat for either one.
Cummings said that, so far, no one has reported the possible, Oconee County panther sightings to DNR.
"We do get calls like that all the time," she said. "A few months ago someone called from Dawson County who was absolutely convinced that a white Siberian tiger had killed their horse." No one ever found a white Siberian tiger.
It's possible, Cummings said, that the wild animal spotted in Oconee County was a coyote or a bobcat.
"Coyotes are in every county in Georgia," she said.
Even in the overdeveloped, congested wilds of Fulton County's urban jungles?
"Even in Fulton County."