Remember the big cat of Olinda? Ten years ago, the island was in the grip of hysteria about a mysterious large feline spotted in the hills and forests above Makawao. The "Olinda Cat" mystery had just about everyone talking.
It started in December 2002, with a single account of a cat sighting. From there, all kinds of witnesses came forward. A Makawao man heard strange noises outside his home one night. When he went outside to investigate, he saw a large, shadowy beast resembling a jaguar or mountain lion.
For most of 2003, the papers reported sightings on a regular basis. Evening walkers told newspapers they saw a large cat stalking the property line one night.
And there was plenty of circumstantial evidence. People reported ominous claw marks on trees. They saw large paw prints in the ground. Then there were the sounds of wailing and calls in the middle of the night. Dogs barked like crazy for no reason. One Olinda resident apparently carried a revolver with him whenever he walked his dog - just to be safe.
Pieced from eyewitness accounts, the animal was big - about 7 feet in length. It was dark (but no one ever claimed to see it during the day) and it had green eyes.
After the sensational accounts, some wanted to see the cryptocat for themselves. Hikers around Olinda became more prevalent. Then reports of a large cat came from different parts of the island. At first, the cat's "habitat" started in a small area above Seabury Hall. But after the reports, gossip and excitement, folks started seeing it all over Makawao. It might have been up there near Piiholo Road or upper Maliko. Later on, as the mysterious cat became more famous, the Department of Land and Natural Resources got reports of it being found around Kihei, Kapalua and even Makena.
The physical evidence of the cat was scant. Supposed fur samples and feces were analyzed ad nauseam. Attempts to trace the DNA in the samples were futile and the results inconclusive. This only added to the mystery.
But the hysteria hit a new height when the state raised money to bring in an expert trapper from the Mainland. A wildcat trapper from Arizona flew in with ropes, snares and expertise. After demonstrating his snares at a news conference, training DLNR officers about catching big game, setting the snares in the gulches around Makawao, and even after importing special scents from the Honolulu Zoo to attract the animal, we came up empty-handed.
The state tried other methods too. Field agents wandered the woods with loudspeakers and recordings of jaguar sounds. They spread cat urine from African wildcats (compliments of the animals housed at the Honolulu Zoo) near areas where witnesses claimed to have seen it. Still, no cat.
Then, as quickly as the sightings started, everything stopped. The cat was gone. The dogs went back to barking at feral cats or nothing at all. Walkers ambled without incident. Strange noises in the middle of the night ceased. Olinda was a peaceful place again. The cat was gone.
So what happened? Rumors spread faster than wildfire. Some rich guy owned it and would let it out to wreak havoc, said some. The owner had to get rid of it discretely when the heat from the DLNR came down and the owner did just that. The cat never existed, said others. Some even blamed the DLNR for staging a hoax in an attempt to raise awareness of invasive species.
My favorite conspiracy theory is that the cat is still there in hiding and that the media in collusion with the government simply stopped reporting the sightings. Stories of the cat continued for a few more years and now most people have moved on.
So what exactly was that all about? Was there really a big cat? Maybe. Exotic animals do wind up in the islands from time to time. The wombat colony in Kalihi Valley was well documented from the 1930s through the 1960s. Snakes and piranhas occasionally show up in trees and streams. So why not a panther prowling Olinda?
What's more intriguing to me was the hysteria that mounted around the whole thing. The big cat was the favorite topic among families, workplaces and bars. Even the state got in on the act.
In the end, we were left with no results, no big cat and a lot of questions. The big cat amounted to nothing more than a few suspect fur samples and a lot of speculation. Hard to believe it's been more than a decade since the Upcountry madness took over the island. I guess we're due for another good hoax (or maybe another giant wild animal roaming the wilderness).
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."