Search over for wandering cheetah; B.C. authorities question person of interest

VANCOUVER -- Conservation officers have called off the search for a cheetah last seen roaming a highway in British Columbia's Interior late last week.

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Insp. Joe Caravetta of the Conservation Officer Service said Monday that there have been no reported sightings of the stray cat since it was originally spotted in the Kootenay region last Thursday.

"We haven't found the cheetah. Whether it's at large or not, we can't confirm," he said.

"At this point in time we don't feel there's a present, immediate safety risk to the public."

RCMP sent out a release Thursday evening that the big cat had been seen wandering along Highway 3 near Crawford Bay, about 50 kilometres northeast of Nelson in the Kootenay region.

The witness who happened upon the cheetah took several pictures of it walking along the gravel shoulder between the highway and a snow-covered field. The witness said the animal was wearing an orange coloured cloth collar.

Officials have spoken to one person of interest since the investigation began, Caravetta added, but didn't elaborate on why they talked with that person.

"Obviously somebody brought it here, it didn't just walk from Africa," he said. "So who brought it, where did they have it and where is it now?"

Caravetta also stressed that conservation officers were not interested in killing the animal.

"We will not destroy this cheetah," he said.

"We understand that these animals are threatened and endangered. The last thing we want to do is shoot a cheetah."

Last week the province asked the Calgary Zoo to house the animal, if found, until a more permanent, licensed facility could be located.

Zoo spokeswoman Trish Exton-Parder said the Alberta facility has the proper permits and expertise to care for a cheetah and would be happy to help.

B.C.'s Forests Ministry received a permit application currently under review to possess a cheetah in the Kootenay region, according to a ministry statement.

"However, ministry staff advise there is no indication or information as to whether the cheetah on the loose is or could be related to the above permit application," the statement said.

The Greater Vancouver Zoo currently holds the only permit to possess a cheetah in B.C., said the statement.

As for the condition of the missing African cat, Caravetta couldn't say if the animal might have died from exposure in an area where temperatures overnight Thursday reached minus 16.

B.C.'s provincial veterinarian says it would be difficult for a cheetah to survive any length of time in cold weather without food, said Caravetta.

"It doesn't look good for it if somebody hasn't already found it."



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