As a scuba diver who loves to visit exotic places, Jody Hunke is used to seeing all kinds of creatures.
Like sharks, for instance.
But her jaw still dropped Tuesday when she looked out her kitchen window around 6:30 p.m. and saw what her husband, Bruce Kitchen, instantly thought was a mountain lion.
“It was the craziest thing,” Hunke said. “It’s big like a dog and walks like a cat.”
Kitchen videotaped the creature on his cellphone as it sauntered through the dry vegetation across the street from their home outside Wahoo. The houses sit on 3-acre lots.
The couple shared the video with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which is investigating, according to Sam Wilson, furbearer-carnivore program manager. Game and Parks personnel were in the area Wednesday, Hunke said.
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“As a scientific agency, we require verifiable evidence to confirm cougar presence,” Wilson said. “We take firsthand reports, meet with observers or go the location, look at data to determine if the animal is a mountain lion or not, and if the location, date, etc., are accurate. If these are met, we confirm the observation.”
A mountain lion was confirmed by Game and Parks through video footage captured Wednesday at the northwest edge of Lincoln.
That mountain lion was recorded by a household security camera around 4 a.m. in a backyard in the Air Park neighborhood.
If the animal is observed by the public, or if people take photos of a mountain lion, they should contact the Game and Parks office in Lincoln at OutdoorNebraska.org.
Wahoo is about 30 miles north of Lincoln.
Even though the animal in Wahoo hasn't yet been confirmed as a mountain lion, the Wahoo couple also let their neighborhood association know so fellow residents could keep their children and small animals safe if needed.
Hunke said although her two dogs are larger, she has been going outside with them now instead of letting them roam free.
Hunke and Kitchen are being careful, too, although the heat has kept them mostly inside.
“I went outside last night and said, ‘Here, kitty kitty’ and looked around before I went out to the garden,” she said Thursday. “I think it’s just moved on.”
Wilson said young lions such as those they have documented in southeastern Nebraska are typically on the move. They can stay in an area for a bit if they kill a deer, but they often travel two to 20 miles a day while searching for a new territory.
Mountain lions are found in all western states. Nebraska has three areas with populations: the Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills and the Niobrara River Valley. The most established population is the Pine Ridge, where the mountain lion population was estimated at 33 total animals in 2021.
The big cats typically flee from people, Wilson said.
“People should not approach them and use common sense, but they are not typically cause for alarm just by being in an area,” he said.
Hunke said she’s not worried about the animal lurking nearby. She rarely sees any kind of game in the former bean field, not even deer or rabbits, so she doesn’t think there is a lot of food in the area for the animal.
Hunke said that if a big cat is found, she’s hoping Game and Parks will just move it to a safer location.
“I don’t want it taken out,” she said. “That would sadden my heart.”