Eileen Dragonuk has heard of mountain lions in her western Baltimore County neighborhood before.
When she was growing up in the same Burmont Avenue house where she lives today, her grandfather and uncle sometimes sighted big cats while they farmed the fields that are now Randallstown residential subdivisions.
The tension then was much the same as it has been since Oct. 7, when her neighbor across the street first reported seeing a mountain lion leaping the brush of a field in back of her house.
Police and wildlife officials are pursuing reports of a mountain lion prowling the Randallstown area, but have yet to come up with any evidence. Still, the reports have taken on a life of their own, with residents on the lookout and schoolchildren afraid of the night.
"We do believe what's going on," said Dragonuk, 65. "A lot of things aren't clicking around the neighborhood."
Her dog and others have gone into barking fits at night that are not easily calmed. She and others are cautious about walking around their yards, especially at night. And, as they look over their shoulders, some have seen shadows, a pair of green eyes and other suggestions of something exotic lurking at the fringes of their lawns.
The Burmont Avenue neighborhood is just north of a busy strip of Liberty Road. Parts have been thickly settled with new development, but a strip of woods runs deep along the east side of Burmont, starting at the weeds in back of Larry's Chevrolet dealership off Liberty Road.
In the field behind the dealership, the state Department of Natural Resources has set a steel trap about the size of a closet, baited with a blackened, leathery piece of meat.
Mark Hooper, a regional wildlife manager with the department, doubts that mountain lions would be residing in the area today. Possibly a big cat that got away from someone raising it illegally as pet, he said. Or else, the reports could turn out like many of the 2,500 animal-nuisance complaints that come each year to his agency's office in Owings Mills.
In the past, "there have been reports of mountain lions. We've ended up with Great Danes," Hooper said, or "large tawny-colored tom cats."
Whatever this animal is, it may endanger human lives, said E. Jay Miller, a spokesman for the Baltimore County police. "That's why we don't discount anything."
The police have searched the animal-sighting areas, but found no evidence, he said. And some people telling stories of strange sights and sounds turned out to have heard them from a mailman, he said. "We found they hadn't really seen it, but they'd been hearing it from this mailman."
The police are currently investigating leads that someone in the neighborhood raised a big cat that got away, Miller said. "It's not a lot to go on."
Meanwhile, reports of first-hand sightings keep coming, as recently as 11:30 a.m. yesterday. Virginia Gallon said she saw something that looked like a mountain lion run past the back yard of her house in Slade Avenue, near the Old Court Metro station.
"I just saw this long, large animal going quick as a breeze down my back yard with all the birds alarmed," Gallon said. After the animal disappeared in the bushes by a stream in back of the yard, she knocked on her fence to rouse it. "It jumped from where it was and took off toward the Metro," she said.
Gallon said the animal looked like a mountain lion and that its long tail curled like a soup ladle.
Gallon is afraid now, most of all that this animal will eat her dog.
Down Liberty Road, at Randallstown Elementary School, the children were buzzing with fear and excitement. In a second-grade Social Studies class, they were attempting to top each other with tales of fright and precaution over the big cat. "I thought it would come and eat my mother," said one boy, who explained that his mother was often out at night.
Another student, Breanna Dwyer, said that she won't play in the woods nowadays unless accompanied by her 6-year-old brother. "He goes to karate," she explained.
On Burmont Avenue, Minnie Livesay won't wander alone into her back field, where abandoned hog pens and feed houses give evidence of the land's previous life as a farm. "I'm scared of that thing," said Livesay, who was the first to sight the animal that has since put the entire neighborhood, and beyond, on the lookout. "The way he jumped, he could have you in a minute."
Livesay, who is 78 years old, was standing by her back door on Oct. 7, at about 9:30 a.m., when she saw an animal leap out of the weeds about 40 yards away, in back of Larry's Chevrolet. It crossed part of her yard and disappeared into the weeds again. "He was a great big old long thing with a long tail," she said, about 3 1/2 feet high.
Her son-in-law, Bob Riley, said he saw the animal on Tuesday afternoon.