The blissfully peaceful rhythm of life in the olive groves and forests of southern Tuscany has been rudely disrupted this month by repeated sightings of a large black beast around the medieval Tuscan village of Prata, a few kilometers from the tourist center of Massa Marittima.
"Until now, we looked out for vipers on the ground when we walked around outside," said Antonella Boddi, a local farmer. "These days we're looking up first, into the trees." That's where the animal -- believed to be a panther -- might be lurking.
Dozens of police, forestry workers and wildlife experts have descended on this beautiful, sparsely populated region to track down the elusive predator. They have attached warning notices to trees instructing people how to behave if they encounter it. Officials decided last week that it should be caught alive. But no one knows how to do that.
It's unclear who saw the panther first. In early August, Riccardo Pini, who owns a holiday home nearby, told people in the village that he had seen a large black cat twice in five days and that it was "quite obviously a black panther." He said he saw it clearly and for a long time. Pini runs a business near Florence. He bought his summer retreat here back in 1974.
He had been planning to retire here in a few years, but he's no longer quite so sure about that. Pini refuses to set foot in Prata. The villagers accused him of lying. Some said he just wanted the planned village festival to be cancelled. Others claimed he wanted to keep mushroom gatherers out of the woods so that he could keep more for himself. Pini, furious at the accusations, says he'll keep quiet in future, "even if I see a herd of elephants."
But then, Bruno Sani, the father of a member of parliament no less, reported that he was missing two sheep, two goats and two piglets. Droppings and paw prints indicated that a large cat was the culprit. Further panther spotters came forward. The authorities took over the case. And shortly afterwards, two forestry workers saw and photographed the predator.
'This Moment Seemed Endless'
They said the beast had been lying in a meadow, looking quite relaxed. When they took a few steps towards it, the animal stood up and looked at them. "This moment seemed endless," the brave duo told a reporter from the local newspaper, Corriere di Maremma.
Further "moments of panic and indecision" followed before the sinister beast finally turned away and slowly padded off into the forest. The photo shows a black blotch whose outlines resemble an animal. But the men have "no doubt that it was a panther."
Since then, local papers have been carrying daily stories about the hunt for "Bagheera," named after the friendly panther from Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." The locals find the beast a tad less cuddly, however. They're afraid. Most of the buildings have no fences, and terraces and gardens open out onto meadows, bushes and woods. Evening life takes place outdoors around here. At least, it used to.
Authorities have mounted a show of force, to impress the locals. One vehicle, sometimes two, stands parked on the only hard-top road leading into the wooded hills south of Prata, to remind locals to take care and to keep strangers out. The officers don't tend to venture out of the cars. And when it gets dark, they drive home. No patrols have been sighted on the narrow, dark forest paths leading to the farms or holiday homes, not even in daylight.
Sometimes a daring armed squad equipped with strong lamps on the roof of their vehicle drives up to houses along the street and reminds residents to remain in their homes and to keep their pets indoors. And to call them, or better still the local vet, if the beast makes an appearance. The vet has a tranquilizer gun -- but it usually takes him two hours to arrive. People have also been told to give the cage traps that have been set up a wide berth, because it may scare off the cat.
But still the panther remains at large. He or she has an abundance of deer, wild boar, rabbits and other fresh livestock at his or her disposal in the wild. And there is no shortage of sheep in the fields.
And if the cat was ever tempted to sniff around the cages, it would probably change its mind because forestry workers and police officers tend to whistle, shout and bang the bars with metal rods whenever they exchange the bait -- to make themselves feel a little safer while they're going about their dangerous work.
Automatic cameras have been positioned along narrow paths to find out what routes the animal takes. Panthers, experts say, wander up to 10 kilometers a night. Which presumably renders a photo from the previous night pretty useless.
What is to be done? Hunters say the dangerous animal should be driven out of the forest by beaters, and killed. Farmers say "give us guns, we'll take care of it." But animal welfare groups are up in arms at the suggestion, and have reminded the people of Prata that panthers are a protected species. They won't even accept putting out live bait such as chickens or rabbits.
Memories of Bruno
The controversy echoes the tale of Bruno the brown bear who wandered into Germany from Austria and eluded hunters for weeks, gorging himself on live sheep and honey, until he was shot dead, to the dismay of his many fans.
The police would rather just leave. After all, the chances of catching the cat seem pretty remote.
A vague hope remains: that Bagheera's former owner might return to pick up his pet. Police have made enquiries with every circus and every zoo for miles around to see if anyone is missing a panther. No one is. Officials assume that some rich show-off had a panther cub and got rid of it when it grew too big. Experts say that if the owner came back, the beast might just hop back in its cage.
The former owner may be pretty stupid. But he's unlikely to be so stupid to show his face round here to be greeted by police and a hefty fine.