Big Cats In Unlikely Places
The Missouri Conservation Department was on the trail a few days later.
"This is like winning the lottery, without the money. The odds of getting a photo of a mountain lion in Missouri are a billion in one, a million to one," Dave Hamilton, of the Missouri Conservation Department said.
Hamilton is a wildlife biologist with the Missouri Conservation Department and he probably knows more about mountain lions in Missouri than anyone else. Hamilton investigates mountain lion sightings on a daily basis, keeping an eye out for photo-shopping.
He uses a cutout called Max. Max is a cutout of a male mountain lion from Colorado, weighing about 150 pounds. Hamilton uses the cutout to look for shadows and background objects. With Max's help, Hamilton quickly verified Neis' picture.
"We've chased every lead since 1994 and so far we've only come up with ten," Hamilton said. "Joe's cat got a lot of air time in Columbia and across the state. And our calls went up dramatically after that."
Hamilton says that's because there's a mystique about mountain lions, which leads to many false claims. Usually, these sightings are house cats or dogs.
So how many mountain lions are there in Missouri?
"At any given time we could have none, or we could have a handful," Hamilton said.
Hamilton believes the mountain lion in this picture was about a year and a half old, 115 pounds, and probably a male from South Dakota. Males have been known to venture 700 miles from home, so it's anyone's guess where he is now.
"He could be watching us right now. Or he could be in Kentucky. Or he could be back home in South Dakota," Hamilton said.
Missouri's foremost expert on the mountain lion says we should respect big cats, but don't change your outdoor plans out of fear. And that takes us back to Joe, a natural born outdoorsman who, to this day, is questioned about whether his picture is real or not.
"Anybody that knows me knows I [don't have] enough money to buy a stuffed animal [to plant in the woods]" Neis joked.
There are only 25 families in Missouri who have a legitimate permit to keep a mountain lion. The Lolli brothers in Macon are one of those families.
Hamilton says if we see more and more sightings of big cats in Missouri, it doesn't necessarily mean we have more cats, but the new technology that allows us to capture priceless moments.
And just where did Joe Neis get his one in a billion shot?