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Some Shafter residents say they've seen a black panther in their community. But not this one — this is a file photo of a panther.

SHAFTER -- Elia Sanchez keeps a baseball bat just inside the front door of her apartment. She keeps it there in case the Shafter panther comes prowling.

"I believe it, you know," Sanchez said earlier this month of reports that the large non-native black cat has made a home in the orchards by Highway 43 and Fresno Avenue.

She's not alone. Several people have reported sightings of the predator.

Sanchez said she keeps close to her apartment door when outside, keeping the door open in case she has to make a run for safety. She told her husband they should always keep the front gate shut from now on.

He told her that won't make a difference.

"He said, 'That gate won't keep it out,'" Sanchez said. "'Panthers jump.'"

Despite her fears of a wild, vicious predator stalking the night, no one has turned up evidence of a panther living in the Shafter area, and no one has reported a sighting of the large cat in a month. Many residents are skeptical there was ever a panther in the area.

Salvador Rauda, who lives just down the street from Sanchez, said he saw some prints in the dirt by the orchards but thinks they were likely left by a raccoon or a skunk. He said coyotes are sometimes spotted in Shafter, but never panthers.

"I've never heard of anything like this," Rauda said.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have never found evidence of a panther in California. Spokeswoman Janice Mackey said they receive reports of panther sightings a few times a year.

"We get calls about panthers across the state and none of them have ever been verified," she said.

David Germano, a zoologist and professor at Cal State Bakersfield, said he suspects people saw a mountain lion or maybe a cougar. Both those cats are big, but are light-colored.

A panther is a Central and South American cat, Germano said.

"It would be a one in a bazillion chance that a panther was up here," he said.

Victor Rodriguez, 21, and his mother, Maria Rodriguez, laughed when asked about the panther and Victor immediately went to his computer and brought up "The Shafter Panther" Facebook page, where the "panther" talks about moving to the nearby orchards after becoming sick of jungle living. As of Tuesday, the page had received 997 "likes," and limited edition "Panther Crossing" T-shirts were sold at Shafter's Cinco De Mayo festival.

The panther himself (or herself?) took to the page and defended its Central Valley existence.

"So, the Fish and Game people don't believe I exist huh?," the panther wrote. "Well maybe since I haven't seen them, maybe THEY don't exist."

Victor Rodriguez said he finds the story entertaining but doesn't give the reports any credence. He said a hunter friend of his, however, had been driving around the area looking to make a prize kill.

Maria Rodriguez said there are a lot of large feral cats in the area and someone probably just got a quick look at one of them and mistook it for something bigger.

Convenience store manager Kassim Cass said customers had been talking about the supposed sightings. He said he hasn't seen the animal, but thinks people who claim to have seen it probably saw a big dog or cat.

There was a large black dog on the loose shortly before the panther reports came in, he said.

Word of the animal spread through the city by both residents and news reports, and even those who don't live anywhere near the orchard where the alleged predator was spotted have heard about it.

Jashive Campos works downtown and first got wind of the big cat through a friend on Facebook. She said she thinks it's a joke.

Another downtown worker, Lupe Hernandez, said Shafter is a small city and it doesn't take much to get people overexcited. She said there's no way a panther has made its home there.

Richard Fabrie said one of his employees had been talking excitedly about the panther. He laughed and shook his head when asked if he believed the tales, but said some people have said they believe it escaped from a drug kingpin and made its way here.

"Apparently panthers are big with drug lords," Fabrie said.

Sanchez, the resident with the baseball bat, doesn't care so much about where the panther came from as long as it doesn't come near her. She said she looks around intently when going to get the mail and then runs back in.

And when there's a noise at the door she makes sure the bat is handy. Sanchez said she realizes, however, that she probably won't hear the panther coming.

"The panther's not going to knock," she said.