Report from Reuel Chisholm
A SCHOOL cleaner was left shaking with fear yesterday after fleeing the black leopard which is stalking the Renfrewshire countryside.
Letters have now been sent to parents who have children at the primary school where the woman works to alert them to the scare.
The big cat sighting was one of two made yesterday within around a mile of each other and a police helicopter was brought in to search for the beast from the air.
Last night school cleaner Mary O'Connor told how she was left terrified after coming face to face with the beast.
The 42-year-old ran off when she saw the animal and scrambled over fences and hedges to get away, ripping her jacket in the process.
Mary told the Paisley Daily Express: "I've never been so frightened in my entire life. I know what I saw and it was a wild beast.
"I'm not easily frightened, but seeing this big cat really freaked me out. I just bolted and tried to put as much distance between us as possible.
"I didn't know I could run so fast and I was in such a hurry to get away that I managed to rip my jacket."
Mary, who works at Auchenlodment Primary in Johnstone, was making her way to the school at 6am yesterday when she spotted the big cat near her home in the town's Maple Drive.
Experts believe the animal is likely to be a black leopard which has been spotted a number of times in Renfrewshire in recent weeks.
Mary was so frightened by the encounter that she has now switched her shift at the school so that she can go to work in the afternoon when it is light, instead of early in the morning when it is dark.
She has also told her 14-year-old twins, Michelle and Siobhan, to travel to their school in a taxi in case they come across the beast.
Mary, who lives just yards from the Bluebell Woods, said: "I was only about 25 feet away from this animal and it was bigger than a large dog, let alone a domestic cat.
"It was jet black and was around a couple of feet high and about four feet long. It was probably making its way back to the woods.
"I got a good look at its face and then it turned its head towards me and that's when I ran away as fast as I could."
A few hours later, a second sighting of a big cat was reported by a woman who was walking near a cycle track in the Collier Street area of Johnstone.
Officers were sent to the scene and the police helicopter scoured the area but the beast was not found.
Meanwhile, staff at Auchenlodment Primary are taking "sensible precautions" as a result of Mary's sighting.
Children have been urged to stay alert and a letter has been sent to all parents to inform them of the situation.
Head teacher Elaine Webster said: "We would stress that there is no need for panic but we are taking sensible precautions, such as making sure the gates and entrances to the school are locked."
There have been a number of reports of a big cat on the loose in Renfrewshire recently, including sightings in Gibson Crescent, Johnstone, Moss Road, Linwood, and near Lochwinnoch Primary School.
Renfrewshire News, 25 th November 2003
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