The Tale of the Maui Mystery Cat

In 2003, a jaguar was suspected of terrorizing residents of the Olinda area, Maui. Photo of a jaguar attacking a cayman in the Pantanal, Brazil, by Frank Schoen. Copyright: https://www.123rf.com/profile_djambi1969. Used with permission.     



In 2003, I was sitting in a Starbucks across from the Honolulu Zoo in Waikiki, reading the Honolulu Advertiser, when I came across an article about the sighting of a large, cat-like creature on Maui. I don't have that initial article, but I did find an archived copy of an article from Hawaii News Now on the topic:


Wildlife officials are planning to intensify efforts today to capture a large catlike animal spotted in the lower Olinda area of Upcountry Maui. A search team sent out yesterday found evidence the animal does exist. They discovered tree trunks with deep scratch marks and a number of doves that appeared to be killed by a catlike paw. Wildlife experts plan to bait an existing trap today and add four more traps. Officials say they believe the animal is about four feet long and could be a jaguar or leopard.

And, in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, a reporter wrote:

A "mystery cat" in upcountry Maui is apparently still in the area around Olinda, based on a number of sightings over the past two weeks, the Department of Land and Natural Resources reported yesterday in an e-mailed news release. On Wednesday, three residents saw a cat-like animal walking down a pasture fence at around 4 p.m. The next day at about 5:30 a.m., the animal was seen just a quarter of a mile downslope from the previous day's sighting. Two women passing through the area saw the cat from about 7 feet away at about 8:50 p.m. Thursday night. They described the animal as about 7 feet long, with a long tail, black coat, yellow-green eyes and a flat face. DLNR wildlife official responded to the sighting and searched the area with infrared equipment Thursday and Friday nights. Earlier that week and the week before, homeowners who live in the area heard an animal calling and dogs barking in response.


The issue sparked my interest. For a decade, I had taught an upper division course in wildlife damage management techniques. Included was a lab in predation assessment, and it included the publication by Dale Wade entitled, Procedures for Evaluating Predation on Livestock and Wildlife. In addition, another lab focused on decision-making, and a weak link in many assessments of predation was in determining whether predation actually occurred, and the species responsible. One year I even had predator-killed lambs brought to campus, for students to evaluate, but conducting field necropsies outside the classroom in the lawn was not gentle on passing students.

Below is a brief overview of the Maui Mystery Cat tale (tale - "a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted"). Now, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin had a cartoonist, Corky Trinidad, who drew his daily cartoons with representations of real events and people. Corky was interested in the mystery cat issue as well. I wrote to him in 2004, and he gave me permission to use his cartoons.

•••••
June 25, 2003
Evidence supports sightings of big cat on Maui
By Timothy Hurley, Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — State wildlife workers yesterday discovered evidence of a big cat in the lower Olinda area of Maui where residents have reported seeing a large animal on the loose.

“I believe it’s for real,” said wildlife biologist Fern Duvall, leader of a six-person team that traversed a thickly wooded gulch in search of the unidentified cat, believed to be a jaguar or leopard that was released into the wild. “There’s something out there.”

The team found claw marks on trees, dead doves with bite marks, 4-inch paw prints and tracks.What’s more, one hour into the morning search, an Olinda resident reported seeing the large cat at a place where it had been previously seen. Duvall speculated that the searchers may have spooked the animal to move into a different area.

There have been reports over the past six months suggesting that a large cat is prowling the area, with at least five sightings….

Duvall said searchers found several trees with deep gouges, indicating they were used as scratching posts and for climbing. Also found were eight to 10 dead doves with bite marks on their backs, he said. Large cat-like paw prints were seen in different areas, he said, but the soil was too dry to make an impression of the print…

 

•••••
Zebra dove


These early reports had me shaking my head in wonder. I don't care whether you are a jaguar, a leopard, a puma, or a tiger. You don't kill a dove (probably one of the common introduced doves, the zebra dove) with bites to the back. In fact, you don't even hunt doves. You hunt large prey, like deer, pigs, and probably dogs and cats. Dry soil with indistinct tracks? Probably a dog. Scratches on trees? This could be any number of things, from rats to pigs. Dead doves with bites? Feral cats. In other words, I don't need to invent a jaguar to develop reasonable explanations for these signs. Look at these jaguar teeth below. Are these the tools to bite doves and leave bite marks on their backs?



Panthera onca (jaguar) skull, Mammalian Species, Issue 340, 26 October 1989, Page 2, https://doi.org/10.2307/3504096

•••••

July 15, 2003
Officials look into possible attack by Maui mystery cat
By Timothy Hurley, Advertiser Maui County Bureau

OLINDA, Maui — State wildlife officials are investigating the possibility that the mauling of a young deer here may have been the work of a big cat believed to have been on the loose for at least six months.

"At this time we do not have conclusive evidence for what might have killed this deer," state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall said in a statement yesterday.

The deer, a 30-pound fawn, was found late Friday evening by a homeowner on private land. A second Olinda resident reported seeing a catlike animal Saturday afternoon from his lanai in the same area….

•••••

A 30 pound fawn mauled by a big cat? How do you distinguish between a dog attacking this deer and a big cat? There are hundreds of free-roaming dogs on Maui, and certainly many in the Olinda area. Dogs kill livestock and deer, as seen in this report on January 18, 2020.


•••••

Over the next few weeks, there were additional articles outlining the state DLNR's attempts to find and capture this big cat. I found myself increasingly convinced that this "Maui mystery cat" did not, in fact, exist. I contacted reporter Tim Hurley, and shared my skepticism. He encouraged me to write an opinion piece with my thoughts, and it was published in August (and thanks to Tim for helping me track down this article from 2003!). 

August 4, 2003
Forget catching ghost cat
By Robert Schmidt
 
So where is that big Maui cat?
 
People are seeing it, biologists are monitoring it and the newspapers are reporting it. "I believe it's for real," one wildlife biologist was quoted in The Advertiser.
 
Of course something is out there. The Olinda area on Maui has trees, birds, deer, dogs, rats, people, houses, cars and, at least until recently, big cat traps.

But a leopard or a jaguar? I doubt it.

People have reported observations of a "cat-like" animal since at least last December. Upon investigation, large paw prints, claw marks on trees, dead doves and a dead fawn were found. The local chicken population may have declined. Traps caught nothing except a feral cat, and motion-sensing cameras came up with zilch.

How does a big cat, whether jaguar, leopard, cougar or African lion, get to Maui? It's not via wind, water or wings. If there is a big cat here, it came with a person, and unless our port inspectors are blind, a full-grown leopard in a cage or on a leash would not be admitted.

Perhaps a smaller cub could be sneaked through in a bag. So a cub is brought to Maui, and either escapes or allowed to roam, right? How would it behave?

Like other big cats raised in captivity, it would not have learned how to hunt from its mother, and it would associate humans with food. But nobody is reporting that this ghost cat is approaching him or her. Nobody is complaining about Fluffy or Spot disappearing. Domestic cat-sized predators eat doves. Large cats eat bigger prey. I doubt that a hungry leopard is going after small birds.

Are residents hearing strange new feline vocalizations? Is there a local in the neighborhood bragging about having a wild cat? Dogs barking like crazy for unknown reasons? Somebody without cats buying a lot of cat food at the market?

I believe people are seeing something, and biologists are monitoring something. I think it is a stretch to put it together into one four-legged package. I suspect a new feral cat has moved into the neighborhood. This fits the reported shape and the dove-killer profile.

You can't catch something that isn't there to be caught, in a trap or on film.

I'm looking for a smoking gun, and it hasn't appeared.



•••••
September 10, 2003

Mystery cat on Maui suspected in dog attack
By Timothy Hurley, Advertiser Maui County Bureau

OLINDA, Maui — A dog that suffered scratches and puncture wounds early Sunday morning may have been attacked by the elusive big cat of Olinda, officials said yesterday.

The incident is the latest in an ongoing series of reports and sightings of the mysterious creature believed to be prowling around this rural Upcountry community since at least December...

•••••

What might be the simplest explanation for a "dog that suffered scratches and puncture wounds" in a place with many free-roaming dogs? My discussions with Tim Hurley resulted in him adding an important caveat in his reporting, that no trained wildlife expert had actually seen the big cat.

October 10, 2003

KAHULUI, Maui — …Residents have reported numerous sightings and animal calls in the night, and authorities have found paw prints and other tell-tale evidence. But so far, no trained wildlife expert has actually seen the big cat.

Officials yesterday said the last credible sighting occurred Sept. 25, when two women reported seeing a big cat 7 feet away from their car at 8:50 p.m. They described the animal as about 7 feet long with a long tail, black coat, yellow-green eyes, a flat face and small ears.

A state wildlife official responded to the call within 40 minutes and spent an hour and a half searching the area with infrared equipment. Although no cat was spotted, animals in a pasture were seen grouped closely together, indicating the possible presence of an animal intruder, officials said….

•••••

This has to be my favorite, yet exasperating observation. An official "spent an hour and a half searching the area with infrared equipment. Although no cat was spotted, animals in a pasture were seen grouped closely together, indicating the possible presence of an animal intruder." For the animals (I assume sheep or goats), what might have been worrying them? How about a person with a strange apparatus on their head, roaming their pasture for an hour and a half at night?

•••••

October 25, 2003

Game expert plans Maui traps
By Timothy Hurley, Advertiser Maui County Bureau

…State wildlife officials believe a big cat — probably brought into the state illegally as a pet and released into the wild — has been prowling the Olinda area since at least December. Residents have reported sightings and animal calls in the night, and authorities have found paw prints and other evidence.

… the size of the paw prints — 4 by 3 1/2 inches — points to an animal of more than 150 pounds, the size of a large mountain lion. But most recent accounts describe a black cat, so it is more likely a jaguar or leopard, he said….

•••••

I have to highlight a comment made by animal track expert Dr. Jim Halfpenny: It’s incredibly easy to mistake dog tracks for lion tracks. It’s incredibly easy. Halfpenny has written a number of books on animal tracks and tracking, including a book on cougar tracks. Remember, Maui has dogs. 


•••••

November 08, 2003
The Maui News

Olinda mystery cat continues to skirt capture - even sighting

OLINDA - Since a series of snares was put in place more than 10 days ago, there have been no signs of the elusive big cat of Olinda.

State wildlife biologist Fern Duvall said Friday there hasn't been a single report of anyone seeing or hearing the mystery cat for at least a week. Duvall said the nearly 20 foot-hold snares that were set in areas believed to be frequented by the cat have, so far, caught nothing except a pregnant dog who gave birth to nine puppies while trapped several days ago…

•••••

The state brought in a bear specialist (?) from the mainland to assist in the capture of the mysterious cat.
Stan Cunningham's experience? He said he has snared about five cats and more than 150 bears. At the time, I knew a lion specialist in Texas whose job was to track, trap, and kill mountain lions, every week, every month, every year. He was the one called in when others couldn't catch a lion. Now, that's an expert.

•••••

And then Tim Hurley summarized the summer of sightings.

November 30, 2003

For Maui, it was year of the cat
By Timothy Hurley, Advertiser Maui County Bureau

OLINDA, Maui — Nearly a year after sightings of a large exotic animal began spreading around this rural community, some are left wondering whether the big cat was ever out there in the first place.

The mystery cat of Olinda remains as mysterious as ever.

The hunt has come up empty-handed despite help from two big-game experts from Arizona and the use of high-tech trapping approaches, including infrared cameras that take pictures at night.
 
DNA analysis of suspected big-cat fur has so far been unable to provide any answers, and last week 19 leg-hold snare traps were disengaged three weeks after they had been set up. Officials said they were putting the hunt on hold until new, credible reports emerge.

Robert Schmidt, a Utah State University professor, certified wildlife biologist and part-time Hawai'i resident, has expressed his doubts that there ever was a big cat.

Schmidt has compared the Maui cat to the legendary Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. In a formal presentation last week at a wildlife conference in Reno, Nev., he said there appears to be no genuine evidence supporting the cat's existence.

In his presentation, he lumped Maui's cat in with mystery cats in Kansas and Wales and told of a burgeoning worldwide phenomenon of unexplained big-cat sightings, including incidents in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and large parts of the United States. While some of the sightings are legitimate, he said, the vast majority are not.

As for Maui, "there very well could be a big cat, but I just highly doubt it," he said.

Schmidt isn't the only skeptic when it comes to the Maui cat. Some Olinda residents are having their doubts as well.

"A lot of neighbors around us are skeptical," declared Ed Mee.

Mee said he has never talked with anyone who has seen the animal up close. "It's always a friend who saw it," he said.

Mee recalls the night his golden retriever suddenly became agitated and how he nervously took his flashlight outside expecting to see a large leopard. Instead, he confronted a big tomcat.
 
"It really is a Loch Ness monster thing," he said.

Neighbor James Krueger is also wondering whether the mysterious cat is real. If any large carnivore were loose in the wilds of Olinda, he said, it couldn't survive without killing more animals than the carcasses that have been found so far.

Krueger, a lawyer, said he has never heard or seen anything that resembles a big cat near his Pi'iholo Road home. Even so, he carries a revolver with him at night when he walks his dogs.
 
"I'd really like to see it taken care of," he said.

Whitney White is a believer. She saw a large, black, catlike creature walking down her
Olinda driveway on a recent Saturday — and it wasn't her black Labrador retriever, which came running around the other side of the house. Later, wildlife officials found what appeared to be large cat prints on her property.

White, who works with dogs for a living, admitted that if the big-cat story hadn't been going around, she would have dismissed the incident.

"All I can say is that I thought I saw it. It was definitely something large. Not a dog," she said.
 
Glenn Coryell, a 32-year Olinda resident, didn't believe the big-cat story from the beginning, and none of the expert conclusions or news accounts since has changed his mind.

Coryell said he remains convinced that pit bulls were responsible for two deer kills. He also suspects that a neighbor's wandering black dog with a long tail is what's behind many of the reported big-cat sightings.

Coryell said the dearth of large-animal kills also strengthens his doubts. He lives at what he called ground zero for the big cat, and he owns potbellied pigs, geese and chickens that are "ripe for the harvesting," but none have been touched. Very few large animals roam the forest above Olinda, and even hunters have had trouble finding wild pigs, he said.

The legend of a big cat has been circulating on Maui for 15 years or so, he said. In recent years, the cat has been reported in Makena, in Ha'iku. When the Olinda cat hit the news, sightings were reported all over the island.

"He's been everywhere. He even goes on vacation with Bigfoot," Coryell said.

The visiting Arizona big-cat experts have pointed to photos of deer kills and large claw marks on trees — along with the sightings and reports of hearing the big cat — as the strongest evidence of the Maui cat.

When the sightings stopped last month, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman Peter T. Young offered three possible reasons: The animal moved to a less populated area, or it returned to an owner and is being confined, or it's dead.

Schmidt, who lives in Manoa in the summer, offers a fourth possibility: "It wasn't there in the first place."

Could this simply be a large feral cat? Determining size can be a tricky matter to the untrained eye, especially at dawn, dusk or at night, he said.

Schmidt teaches a course that includes a segment on wildlife damage assessment. He said it's extraordinarily easy to draw conclusions without a proper assessment.

While admitting he hasn't visited Olinda, Schmidt said it still seems the body of evidence is weak. He said he certainly believes something catlike is out there, but he doubts it's a leopard or a jaguar.

If it were a leopard or jaguar, more dead deer, pigs, dogs and cats would be found. "They are hunters of large animals. They eat large things," he said.

As for claw marks left on trees, he said, other animals could do that.

If the big cat had been raised by humans, as state wildlife officials suspect, then it would be accustomed to coming in contact with people, approaching humans more readily and perhaps begging for food, he said.

••••• 
Location of the Olinda area, Maui (circled)





Since 2003, I have visited the Olinda area on multiple occasions. My partner's great-grandfather actually homesteaded in the nearby Haiku area. Olinda contains homes mixed with rugged terrain. The sight lines are not long, so I can understand that animal sightings can be short and fleeting. Still, here's what you've got. First, what is missing. No trained wildlife professional observed the cat. No DNA from hair, scat, or kills (DNA is left behind in saliva). Dubious tracks. Very dubious predation assessment. Trap and snare failures. What do you have? The known presence of free-roaming cats and dogs.

Zoologist Karl Skuker wrote a book titled, Mystery cats of the world. He stated, "...it is certainly true that large creatures can be 'created' out of smaller ones via optical trickery if seen at a distance and/or in poor lighting conditions. Consequently it is by no means unlikely that some British mystery cats may indeed be nothing more than poorly spied feral domestics" (p. 53).

In my Living with Wildlife course, I showed students a series of slides, clearly of an animal. I ask them to identify the animal. With the first slide, the majority of students always believe it is a dog. Then I show them the animal as it gets closer and closer to me, until they all agree on the identification.






With all of my laments, I do note that people DO move animals around the planet. Large cats have appeared unexpectedly in novel places. They can be dangerous, and exotic species can cause negative environmental effects.

In 2005, sharpshooters searching for a 425-pound tiger that had prowled the hills of Simi Valley, California, for two weeks shot and killed it Wednesday after a family awoke to find it walking past their backyard. Its owner was never identified.


So... the concern about a large cat on Maui? Totally justified. The assessment process for determining whether a big cat even existed? Poorly done. The capture process? This follows the assessment, and given that there was no big cat, traps and snares, as well as the labor and money involved, were unneeded, captured non-targets (at least one pregnant dog), and diverted personnel and frightened the public. 

Here's what DLNR was telling the public:




•••••

On MauiNow's June 4, 2007 "Ask the Mayor" program, then Mayor Alan Arakawa answered a question about the Maui mystery cat:

Question: I was staying in Kapalua at one of the resorts over the Memorial Day weekend when I swear I saw a large cat-like creature on the property one morning. (No I wasn’t drunk, nor had I been drinking). The resort workers assured me that there are no such animals on Maui and suggested that maybe I saw a stray dog. But then I heard later that this isn’t the first time someone saw a large cat on Maui, and that reports of a stray cougar had been made in the past. Is this true?

Answer: Ah yes, the fabled “Maui Cat.” I haven’t heard about this one for a few years but these are mostly stories that have been going on around Maui for the last three or four decades. I believe people may have reported seeing a big cat-like creature in the Upcountry area as recently as the early 2000’s. We actually had some cat wildlife biologists come here to see if there was some sort of big cat out there, which might have been an escaped pet perhaps because they aren’t native to Hawai‘i. I don’t believe there was any evidence found that it existed. Don’t feel bad: The Maui Cat is our version of Bigfoot so I’m guessing you won’t be the last to report a sighting.


The jaguar male is crossing a river in the northern Pantanal. Photo by Jan Fleschmann


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