Critters elude Air Force security

Two wildcats seen running loose on Andrews base remain at large


CAMP SPRINGS -- At Andrews Air Force Base, where the presidential jet Air Force One is based, security is paramount. Visitors must show identification at the main gate. There are radiation detectors. And pets have to be leashed.

But that security was breached yesterday morning as two creatures - described by witnesses as "large cats" and "the size of a large dog" - were spotted running wild on the Prince George's County base.

Base security and county animal control officers searched on foot, along with a K-9 unit, and helicopters hovered over the 6.8-square-mile base. CNN broadcast aerial views, initially reporting that a wildcat was believed to have escaped from a circus.

But last night, the two creatures - perhaps a cougar, maybe a bobcat, maybe something else - were still on the loose.

The excitement began about 10:30 a.m. when the wife of an Air Force captain spotted a tan or brown wildcat roaming around near base housing on the south side, said Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, a spokesman for Andrews. A few minutes later, the animal jumped an eight-foot fence and fled onto Allentown Road, which runs adjacent to the base's western perimeter.

"She knew it wasn't a house cat," Alexander said.

About 11:15, base security spotted a second critter near the commissary. That animal was black.

While it was unknown whether the creatures were aggressive, officials didn't hesitate to take precautions. For about 45 minutes, the commissary, a shopping center called the Base Exchange, and The Club at Andrews, a restaurant, were placed on lockdown, Alexander said.

"All we know is we don't want it injuring anyone on the base," he said. But there seemed to be no sense of nervousness.

Sgt. Gordon Green, who was working at the base's medical center when the cats were spotted, shrugged and laughed at the spectacle of media gathered for a couple of wild animals.

"It was kind of neat, you know?" Green said. "Just interesting, just 'cause it's out of the ordinary."

Colleen Koskinen, 31, who lives on the base with her husband and two young children, said she was shopping in the commissary when the wandering cats' presence was announced.

"There was an announcement that there was a large cougar on the premises," Koskinen said. "We have planes carrying dignitaries in all the time at Andrews Air Force Base, so no one got very rattled. But I'm sure they're going to take care of it."

Rodney Taylor, chief of the Prince George's County Animal Management Division, called the incident "very unusual."

Large cats "are not indigenous to the state of Maryland," he said. "If a large cat is here, it would have been brought in from another area."

Taylor said the animals could be dangerous, and he urged any spotters "to call the proper authorities. They should go in their house and stay away. They should not try to catch it."

While the creatures remained at large, preparations were under way last night for President Bush's return after a visit to New Orleans.

"If people can't get to him, we're sure that animals can't," Alexander said. "We have a very well-laid-out plan for taking care of the president."

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