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Trapper suing county over loss of rooster

The bird was intended to trap a panther, but it didn't pan out. And the rooster was given away.

Buzz over a panther roaming around Hunter's Green has petered out in recent months. Some people say the animal must have moved on. Others say it never existed in the first place.

But the issue hasn't died completely.

A trapper who offered to try to catch the phantom cat plans to file a lawsuit claiming the county wrongly took away his rooster that he used as bait. It alleges Hillsborough County Animal Services violated Vernon Yates' civil rights by depriving him of his property without due process.

Yates' attorney, Tom Dandar of Tampa, sent notices of the lawsuit in July and plans to sue in county or federal court for undisclosed damages. The county's response: Yates was responsible for taking care of the rooster while it was in the trap.

The Seminole-based trapper visited Hunter's Green in April after some residents reported seeing what they believed was a Florida panther. Though skeptical, he agreed to loan them the trap and rooster and remove anything caught.

"I just did it as a favor to the game commission and the cat," said Yates, who specializes in the rescue and treatment of injured and abused wild felines. "I knew all along that we wouldn't find anything."

Yates was accused of neglecting the rooster after an anonymous caller reported that it wasn't getting enough food, water or exercise. The county eventually confiscated the bird and gave it to an employee to live at her farm.

Yates says he never mistreated the rooster and that the county had no right to seize the bird, which he had left under the watch of two Hunter's Green residents. "I'm majorly upset with the county," he said. "I will not let it die. What they did was wrong."

The incident forever has tarnished his reputation, he said. Yates operates Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation and has 40 large cats in his care.

The county considered charging Yates with abandonment or neglect, but never did, he said.

In the end, the traps made little difference. The Hunter's Green Community Association contacted another trapper to catch the creature, but he, too, came up empty.

"We didn't have any success," said Ann Johnson, association manager. "He must have moved down the road."

Wildlife officials aren't sure what to make of it, but suspect it may have been a mountain lion or bobcat. They never verified anything, however, and haven't heard a peep about it in months.

"There's no telling what it was," said Mike Cundiff, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I'm sure if they kept seeing it they would be calling us."

Johnson says she still believes a panther was on the prowl. One homeowner in particular who saw it knows a lot about the endangered cats and can tell the difference between a panther and one of its relatives.

"I'm convinced that it was a Florida panther," she said. "There's no telling what the real story is."

_ Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463 or thurstonsptimes.com.

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