When retired dental technician Bill Nolen and his wife, Annie, saw the strange animal prowling just yards from their home on Milwaukee’s North Side on Monday morning, they immediately thought it was a mountain lion.
Nolen told The Daily Beast that they called for their daughter, Cynthia, in an upstairs bedroom, to take a picture of it on her phone.
Cynthia shot video instead, the footage of which seemed to suggest the same: a lion stalking through the backyards of the Brewers’ Hill neighborhood.
An unidentified representative from Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) told the Nolens he agreed.
“The DNR guy confirmed it was a lion,” Nolen said. (The DNR referred The Daily Beast’s requests for comment to the Milwaukee Police Department.)
After a second, separate sighting Tuesday, the grainy mystery of the Nolens’ video meant that by Wednesday, “the Milwaukee lion” had become a pop-cultural phenomenon, covered on the national news, and with the Internet buzzing in part-fear and part-hilarity.
For its part, the Milwaukee County Zoo said all its lions are present and and accounted for, so whatever is on the prowl could be a mountain lion on the lam.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn conceded to local TV news that the creature appeared “lion-ish” and that his officers were treating the sightings “seriously.”
It was possible that the creature had followed the deer population from upstate, Chief Flynn said, “but we haven’t found it or seen it…but we’ll keep looking.”
Milwaukee police did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
It has its own hashtag, #MKELion, and even the Milwaukee County Transit System has gotten in on the fun.
Nolen said the animal he and his family saw was 2½ to 3 feet high. Local zookeepers, on seeing the video, also thought it was a young mountain lion, he said.
The police took their time to investigate the initial sighting, he added.
“We called 911, and they put it on the back burner,” Nolen said. “It took them an hour or two to get out here. I totally understand that—if it’s not a gunshot they don’t come out right away. They have their priorities.”
Nolen’s home is both near Lake Michigan and on the Milwaukee River. His family is used to seeing rabbits, foxes, and skunks.
“Whatever it is, it’s way out of its habitat,” Nolen said. “My wife is afraid of it. I was just concerned. I don’t want any kids getting hurt. What happens when it gets hungry? I’m not an animal-rights advocate, so I hope they shoot the damn thing.”
Nolen thinks the creature has either followed the Milwaukee River from northern Wisconsin, or—he wondered to this reporter—it may have been kept illegally as a pet, grown too big to be manageable, and then was released by its owner into the wild.
In Milwaukee, residents seem to be taking the possibility of a large wild animal stalking their city in stride.
Ron Thelen, who lives in the Bay View neighborhood, was alerted to the possibility of the creature’s presence by a text he received from his partner Joe Olander’s aunt: “Be safe. Just came over our news. Lion on the loose in the neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Love and miss u.”
Thelen said his co-workers were sanguine about it: “I still rode my bike to work today. Half the people here didn’t know about it, the other half are skeptical.”
If there is a creature, he may find happy hunting this weekend, Thelen said, at the city’s annual German Fest event, which will not only feature delicious German sausage by the yard, but also the 10th annual Dachshund Derby which Thelen characterized as “lots of cute dogs running chaotically across the grass. Hopefully they’ll catch the lion before that.”
Tyler Maas, co-founder of the witty Milwaukee Record blog, noted that someone had already twinned the “Milwaukee Lion” with the “Milverine,” the Milwaukee man so christened because of his chest-baring similarity to Wolverine.
The “I Survived the MKE Lion” T-shirt is also already in circulation, Maas said.
“Most people I know in their late 20s, early 30s, are laughing it off,” said Maas. “Others are sensationalizing it, saying they are frightened for their families and property. I think it will have all blown over in a day or two.”
Even if that is so, the presence of a mountain lion so far east—if proven—is worthy of note, according to Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation.
There have been sightings of mountain lions in the Chicago area, while in 2011 a mountain lion killed by an SUV in Connecticut was discovered—through genetic testing—to have walked 1,500 miles, from the Black Hills of South Dakota through Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Dunbar said the animal allegedly seen in Milwaukee may have walked a similarly epic path, following the Missouri River, or maybe it came from Canada and was heading west.
Ninety-eight percent of sightings of mountain lions turn out to be false, Dunbar said.
There are an estimated 30,000 mountain lions in the United States, and 14 states—in the West and Central West—with “viable” mountain lion populations, Dunbar said, though urban sprawl and development mean their wilderness habitats are being “chopped into,” and so their populations disperse.
The furthest eastern edge of these viable mountain lion populations are in Colorado and Wyoming, said Dunbar. It is illegal to kill them in California, where population numbers have rallied to about 3,400, but not in Nebraska, where of the 22 mountain lions known to have existed there, 16 died in the last hunting season dedicated to killing them in 2014.
Hunting mountain lions has now been suspended in Nebraska to allow for more research.
Mountain lions are making their presence felt in the Midwest. One was struck by a vehicle and killed in Missouri in May, while there has been a reported rise in mountain lion sightings in the Midwest generally.
Dunbar said that if the Milwaukee “lion” is for real, it would typically be a “teenage male,” aged around 24 months, who like other males of that age would have set out to find territory to colonize for himself—100 square miles in the wild; 300 square miles in the desert—away from older males who would kill him.
These teenage lions, like many a heterosexual male teenager perhaps, are also, said Dunbar, looking for a female to mate with. “But when they can’t find one, they just carry on wandering, and they will carry on wandering until something blocks their path and they turn back.”
As for the fear that we humans would make a satisfying mountain lion supper, Dunbar said, “They like to avoid us as much as we like to avoid them. They would prefer to find a quiet corner and wait it out. Generally they’re looking for creatures with four legs. Deer are their primary prey source, and otherwise raccoons, possums, and squirrels. But if you have a dog or cat—yes, that would fit with their vision of a food source, too.”
Dunbar fears that if the Milwaukee lion actually exists, it will be killed by a car or a farmer, or someone who feels threatened by it.
Speaking from his home where his daughter filmed the creature, Nolen said he thinks the authorities will eventually find the animal: “Everybody is very aware of it, everybody knows not to approach it, and call 911,” he told The Daily Beast.
He and his family returned home Tuesday afternoon to find six TV news trucks parked outside.
“My wife is a nervous wreck, she’s tired of all the reporters,” he said. “But it’s something that isn’t normal happening. This is a lion possibly in a big city. My sister-in-law lives in New York. Imagine a lion on Second Avenue.”
Next week, Nolen said, he turns 76—which makes him a Leo. “Ain’t that something,” he said, laughing.