by Mark Matzke
For reasons that are inscrutable, Ohio saw an eruption of out-of- place-animal sightings in the 1940’s. Some of the reports are chilling. Others are amusing. All of them are enigmatic.
The tale of the Peninsula Python stands as an archetypal example of a creature flap from that time period. Over the course of about a month, residents in the Kelly Hill area of Peninsula (twenty-three miles south of Cleveland) were shocked to discover an aggressive and somewhat acrobatic python in their midst. In true mystery animal fashion, it left behind multiple tracks—the hunt for the snake began in earnest when its trail was discovered in more than one farmer’s field—and soon the creature graduated to attacking a henhouse and devouring a chicken. This escalation of behavior, combined with the involvement of the Cleveland and Columbus zoos (who offered a reward for the python’s capture), touched off a 40’s-style media circus.
Amateur and professional trackers were brought in, but, true to form, their efforts went unrewarded. Meanwhile, the eighteen-foot snake took to the trees, and on June 27, 1944, the serpent “leaped” out of a dead willow, terrifying a female farmhand, as well as her cows and dogs. Within a few days, the Peninsula Python had fallen out of another tree, frightening another unfortunate woman before leaving a visible track down to the bank of the Cuyahoga River. Despite numerous, well-organized searches, the snake was never seen again.
A giant snake, though decidedly alarming, is not an entirely implausible inhabitant of the Ohio ecosystem. A kangaroo, on the other hand, would seem completely out of place. Yet that is precisely what an eyewitness said was bounding around the Columbus-area town of Grove City in 1949. A bus driver had a nighttime sighting of what he described as marsupial jumping a fence. Although the witness was certain that what he saw was not a deer, one wonders if this was not a case of misidentification, given the behavior and the description of an animal that “resembled a kangaroo, but appeared to jump on all fours,” not to mention the ubiquitous nature of the Cervidae family in this state. (In the late 1960’s, a State Highway patrolman would have a nighttime sighting of his own, going on record as saying that he saw a kangaroo cross the road in front of his cruiser.)
The 1940’s also saw a flurry of phantom feline reports. One of the most dramatic was recorded in Elkhorn Falls, Indiana, just over the Ohio state line, in August of 1948. No less than six eyewitnesses claimed that a lion—complete with mane and long tail—had charged towards their parked car before crashing through a fence and disappearing. A Deputy Sheriff was called to the scene, and, after examining the baffling tracks left behind by the mystery cat, warned local fisherman to be on the lookout for something large and anomalous. Black panther sightings also go back to 1947, when one such creature was identified near Kirkwood (thirty-four miles north of Dayton). Since then, a number of well-documented and responsibly researched cases have made the reality of giant felines an unavoidable, open question.
In most of these situations, local police officers became active participants in the search for the phantom felines, adding a layer of authenticity to the proceedings. In May of 1979, the sheriff of Delaware County was involved in an active investigation into sightings of a “cougar” in Delaware, Sunbury and Westerville. A rash of tiger sightings had Montgomery, Warren, and Clinton County law enforcement scrambling in 1994, with some officers even making plaster casts of four-inch paw prints. Then in 2004, the deputy police chief of Gahanna (a very suburban portion of Columbus) stunned the media by admitting that he was looking for a three-to-four- hundred pound African lion in his community, based on calls that had been received. It comes as no surprise that in every case, the cats in question eluded capture, leaving behind little more than tales that likely improve with the telling.
What is the open-minded inquirer to do with these accounts? There is little doubt that Ohio has the space and resources necessary to play host to all manner of animal life. It is no longer unusual for coyotes to skirt the edges of civilization, and bobcats are making a comeback in the state’s southern regions. With that said, one wonders: Could some of these sightings be attributed to exotic pets that have escaped their confines? This possibility, which is often dismissed by some researchers as too prosaic, was uncomfortably re-introduced in October 2011 with the tragic Terry Thompson incident that took place near Zanesville.
Thompson apparently released a zoo’s worth of wild animals– all part of his private collection– from their pens before taking his own life, necessitating a heartbreaking mass execution of the freed creatures. For a brief time before the massacre, however, some Zanesville residents had the surreal experience of seeing a real, live lion creeping through a ditch outside their home. Police found themselves in the unenviable position of hunting these animals at night using infrared technology. The State Highway patrol cordoned off seven square miles near Interstate 70, and road signs that normally cautioned drivers about upcoming construction were instead employed to warn of wild animals on the loose. An unbelievable and sickening flap was taking place in real time for the residents of Muskingum County, and thanks to modern media, the world was watching.
When the last shot had been fired, forty-nine animals had been slaughtered, including eighteen Bengal tigers, seventeen lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two Grizzlies, and a baboon. Early reports alleged that a macaque monkey (which was infected with a dangerous virus) had escaped the carnage and fled into surrounding forest. Suddenly, the suggestion that a privately owned “exotic pet” could cause concern—and indeed, hysteria—in an Ohio community did not seem so silly. It had become a senseless, sad reality.
Fugitive creatures from private menageries cannot, of course, account for all of the out-of-place animals sighted in Ohio. They may not even account for many of them. If there is any insight to be gained from the Thompson Incident, perhaps this is it: the wild beasts of the earth—those identified and those yet unknown to us—tend to flee from the presence of human beings. Can you blame them?