Paris: Police and soldiers armed with tranquiliser guns patrolled a town on the outskirts of Paris on Friday, as the search for a tiger on the loose gripped France and forced panicked residents to barricade themselves at home.
A dozen or so troops from a nearby army base joined the hunt for the fearsome beast which has nimbly eluded all attempts at capture since being spotted prowling around a supermarket car park on Thursday morning.
Police guarded the entrance to local schools on Friday morning in case the tiger put in an unwelcome appearance and a helicopter with thermal imaging buzzed overhead the small town of Montevrain, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Paris, right next to the popular Disneyland Paris theme park.
The story has gripped France with wall-to-wall coverage on rolling news channels and local Paris paper Le Parisien splashing the animal on its front page with the headline: “The unbelievable tiger alert.”
And with tiger hysteria taking hold, a “tiger footprint” was spotted at the unlikely location of a service station near the A4 motorway.
A police source said a specialist had confirmed the print and that, if it were confirmed to be the tiger, the animal “would have had to cross the motorway.”
France’s traffic centre also said a “stray animal” had been spotted and urged motorists to exercise caution on the motorway.
Montevrain resident Jean-Francois Ameur was taking no risks as he told his son to wait for a neighbour to pick him up from school in a car.
“It’s been running for 48 hours and it hasn’t eaten, so yes, I’m worried,” said Ameur.
Tiger expert Gilbert Edelstein, from the Pinder circus, said the best response to coming face-to-face with the stripy beast, thought to weigh around 70 kilogrammes (155 pounds), was to “scream as loud as possible.”
“Even better, scream in German. The guttural sounds could scare him away,” added Edelstein.
Meanwhile, authorities were still scratching their heads as to where the feline could have come from.
Disneyland Paris insists tigers are not among the park’s attractions.
Authorities have also made enquiries at a big-cat wildlife park 30 kilometres away.
Suspicion initially fell on a circus that had set up its big top in the supermarket car park a few days ago, but town mayor Christian Robache said it “did not have a tiger”.
A local woman sounded the alarm early on Thursday morning after spotting the animal in the supermarket car park.
Several more people later came forward saying they had seen the tiger on the prowl. “It’s becoming hysteria. That was to be expected,” said a police source.
More than 100 police officers and firefighters armed with tranquiliser guns spent Thursday combing the area in the Seine-et-Marne district to the east of the French capital, without success.
A dog trained in tracking bears and large game was also brought in to help with the so-far fruitless search.
Authorities ordered residents to stay indoors and pick their children up from school in cars.
Experts said there was no question about the type of animal being hunted.
“There is no doubt, it’s a tiger,” said Robert Picaud, the head of a local group responsible for regulating pests, and who took part in the search.
“The footprints are real and they were not made by a man. These prints and photos leave no room for doubt.”
Authorities hope to catch the tiger alive.
They will try to anaesthetise it “if it’s possible,” police said. “If it becomes dangerous or aggressive, the order will be given to kill it.”
A source close to the search operation said the hunt for any tiger would be made more difficult because if the big cat behaved in typical fashion, it would nap a lot, possibly spending hours unnoticed sleeping in a tree.