On a Friday evening in Detroit Lakes, Minn., police were called to the emergency room. The 5-year-old boy had gotten a pretty bad scratch, allegedly from a cat.
Xavier Garza told the officers he’d been playing in his front yard when he saw what he referred to as a “kitty.” It had black fur, a long tail, and yellow eyes. Xavier demonstrated with his hands to show how big it was -- maybe a foot-and-a-half.
He tried to pick it up, and it immediately tore into his face.
As it scratched and bit him, leaving deep, bleeding gashes, Xavier managed to clamp his own teeth on its ear and push it away. He’d have 16 stitches in his head to show for it.
The Detroit Lakes Police Department sees its fair share of cat scratches. This didn’t look like a cat was the culprit; the wounds were spread out, too wide for a cat’s paw. They snapped a few photos of Xavier’s gashes and sent them to the local vet and some Minnesota Department of Natural Resources game wardens, who also found the marks inconsistent with cat-inflicted wounds.
A few ideas were floated. Maybe it was a raccoon gone mad with distemper, or a lynx, or a bobcat, or some kind of lynx-bobcat hybrid.
Police Chief Steven Todd says a neighbor claimed they’d seen a fisher running across the street the night before. Fishers are basically buff, housecat-sized weasels. The police department has set a few live traps to see if they could nab it, whatever it was.
Rob Baden with the DNR is a little more skeptical. In spite of the insistence from the police, the vet, and the game wardens, he thinks this was probably a housecat after all. He says the details don’t add up otherwise. For one thing, Xavier described the animal as “black,” which doesn’t match any of the descriptions of the other animals it could have been. For another, it had a long tail -- bobcats and lynxes don’t.
Fishers do have long tails, but Xavier has been shown pictures of fishers. That’s not it, he says.
You get a lot of calls like these working for the DNR, Baden says, from people who think they’ve seen an exotic or dangerous animal, but have no way of proving it. He’s had anywhere between a dozen and 20 calls about "mountain lion" sightings in his coverage area, and he’s never confirmed a single one.
It’s probably impossible to know what exactly attacked Xavier. Even if the police’s live traps nab something, there’s probably no proving it’s the same animal that took a chunk out of the boy’s face.
“It could be anything,” Baden says. “We don’t know—and jumping to conclusions probably isn’t going to help things.”