Two friends paddled through Lookout Creek late on June 10 or early on June 11. They stopped at the back of the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center property and wandered into a fenced area that contained enclosures for the exotic animals the nature center protects: red wolves, sandhill cranes, hawks, a bald eagle and a bobcat.
They tried to break into the bald eagle's cage but couldn't, so they moved on. They found a rock and bashed their way through two gates into an enclosure for Evi, the nature center's nearly 3-year-old bobcat.
The 14.2-pound female bobcat fought back, scratching the intruders before they decided to leave, according to nature center personnel. As they left, Evi slipped through the open gate, climbed the exterior fence and tucked under the barbed wire — cutting herself in the process. The animal ran up the wooded slopes of Lookout Mountain, setting off a weeklong search. As the intruders left, they closed the gates, latched them and slipped away into the night, leaving nature center personnel to believe their animal was being sold into the exotic pet trade or dead.
"She is very, very important to me, and she wasn't there," Taylor Berry, the animal's caretaker, said. "We had no idea what was going on. She could have been dead. There was a very real chance I may never see this animal again. It was a crushing feeling, very distressing."
Evi (pronounced Eh-Vee), was found in a ditch in bad condition shortly after birth. Her mother was nowhere in sight. A well-meaning person took the animal and its sibling home — which is illegal — and tried to raise them.
The sibling died, and the caretaker's family decided it couldn't handle the animal anymore and took it to Walden's Puddle, an animal rehabilitation center in Joelton, Tennessee, between Nashville and the Kentucky border. Shortly after, the center gave Evi to Reflection Riding to raise. The bobcat has been there for about two and a half years.
The rehab center had worked with the local nature center in the past. Reflection Riding currently houses and cares for Joe, a one-winged broad-winged hawk it got from the Joelton facility. The local nature center team cares for injured and domesticated animals that can't be reintroduced into the wild. The hope was to release Evi, but the animal had been domesticated in its months living with the family.
The nature center team named the bobcat Penny Evinrude: "Penny" for its penny-shaped and copper-colored eyes and "Evinrude" for the sound of its purr, like an Evinrude engine. They helped nurse Evi to health and used a form of training to reward the animal for good behavior. The goal was to create a less-stressful environment for Evi and enrich the bobcat's life.
"It's a big deal because the animals in captivity are not getting the same kind of day-to-day interactions they would get out in the forest," nature center President Mark McKnight said.
Berry and Tish Gailmard, wildlife director at Reflection Riding, began their morning rounds to check on the animals when they got to work Tuesday. Everything looked normal. They had walked by the cages already and there didn't appear to be any reason for concern.
Gailmard went over to the eagle's enclosure and saw the damage. Meanwhile, Berry was at Evi's gate. They called to each other simultaneously, letting each other know someone had been there during the night.
"It's sickening. It's that horrible feeling of your stomach just dropping, and you immediately go into recovery mode," Gailmard said. "You try to start figuring everything out."
Gailmard climbed into the animal's cave within the enclosure to make sure she wasn't there. Then the team called Chattanooga police, area park ranger Justin Young and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and they began to form a plan.
The immediate fear was Evi was locked in a basement or small room waiting to be sold into the exotic animal trade. There's a legal exotic animal trade in Cookeville, as well as the Espresso Exotic Animal Expo in Dandridge, Tennessee.
People will take young animals, bottle-feed them, get them to imprint on humans and try to sell them as pets. Evi would be appealing as she was already domesticated.
Cayden Melia, 21, who later admitted to the break-in, according to police and Reflection Riding personnel, messaged a friend on Snapchat after the incident. He thought she may have some knowledge about the nature center's security due to her work — which has not been released. He has since called the incident a drunken mistake, McKnight said. Melia was issued a citation in lieu of an arrest for criminal trespassing and vandalism. He has until July 14 to turn himself in. The second intruder has not been identified.
Melia asked the friend if she knew whether they had cameras, and she said she wasn't sure. On Wednesday, she saw the news reports that a bobcat was believed to have been stolen from the property. She called Reflection Riding to let them know of the exchange and told them the animal had not been stolen but had escaped during the break-in, the center said.
The nature center received a flood of calls from people wanting to help. There was a $500 reward, but nature center personnel were told it wouldn't be enough to find the bobcat if it were part of the exotic animal trade. Some offered to increase the reward, but McKnight, Gailmard and Berry believed they knew where the animal was.
Berry knew the animal well and believed it would go up the mountain to the wooded area on Lookout Mountain.
They turned down some of the donations to increase the reward and used other donations to buy game cameras to set up in the woods above the property.
They began getting calls from people who had seen Evi.
Someone had seen it at about 10 a.m. Tuesday morning on the Upper Truck trail. On Thursday, a morning runner saw it at about 5 a.m. on Skyuka Trail. On Sunday, they got another call that Evi had been spotted on a connector between the Guild Trail and Skyuka Trail.
A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student who works in the geographic information system lab created a map. Bobcats usually stay within a five-mile range, so the student laid a five-mile range over the Reflection Riding property. The search party set out six game cameras in the area and began searching. Berry would start looking before 5 a.m and stay out until dark. He logged 115 miles walking over six days.
He laid out food. Evi ate the first batch but isn't believed to have eaten the rest of the week. She lost an estimated one-third of her body weight.
There were other dangers in the woods. Evi can't hunt, and she's friendly.
There are two other female bobcats who live in the area on the slopes of Lookout Mountain. Female bobcats don't interact. They create a five-mile perimeter and largely stay in their territory. A male bobcat inhabits the five-mile area between the two females and can overlap land, but female bobcats are vicious toward one another.
"With her social skills, she would have tried to go and befriend this animal," Berry said. "She's very social. Whereas the wild, the truly wild animal, would have been trying to kill her. And [Evi] has never been in a serious fight a day in her life. I mean, she would have died instantly."
Monday morning, shortly before 11 a.m., Berry was out searching for Eli while Gailmard stayed at the office fielding calls and coordinating efforts.
One of the nature center's summer groups was on site. A few of the kids looked in the cage and asked, "What's that?'
Evi had found her way home.
Evi has a hole in her leg where the barbed wire likely cut into her while she escaped. There are other cuts from her neck down her back, and the animal needs time to readjust from the experience.
"The main thing is getting her comfortable again. She's had a very traumatic experience," Berry said. "I can only imagine what it would be like if someone beat down my door with a rock and I ran away only to get lost in the wilderness."
They took her to Chris Keller, a veterinarian at the Mountain Hospital for Animals. She got an antibiotic to help with the injuries. They're easing her back into her normal diet to help her gain weight.
The rest is about slowly letting Evi acclimate and decompress.
The community rallied around the nature center during the search. There were constant messages, donations and Evi's story was widely shared.
"We're a community organization, and the community has really gotten behind supporting us and supporting our mission," Gailmard said.
McKnight has conceptualized a T-shirt the nature center is hoping to make. It embodies the cry of the nature center but also the attitude of the Chattanooga community.
It reads, "Don't mess with our bobcat."