SALEM, Ohio — “It’s sort of like a pony, kinda like a deer, and has this goat thingy on its neck.”
That’s how a surprised Paula Bardo describes the nilgai, the fugitive exotic animal caught on the family’s Columbiana County dairy farm last week.
Residents of southwestern Mahoning County and northwestern Columbiana County have been buzzing about the elusive creature since last summer, when it was spotted wandering the area.
At first glance, some thought it was a large deer.
Maybe it was some sort of pony. It had a mane, and its tail was longer than a deer’s.
Others who saw it crossing roadways in front of them could only stop and stare.
The creature was real. Nobody was making this up.
People driving by the Bardos’ dairy and neighboring farms had reported seeing what they thought was a cow on the roadway in late February.
Light brown. Could be a Jersey.
Except the Bardos didn’t have any Jerseys in that barn.
A family member spotted the animal near the barn Feb. 28 and confirmed it wasn’t a cow. Sure wasn’t a deer, either.
Was it …? Could it be?
The next day, when the animal was spotted again, they took action.
“There were tracks all up and down the fenceline in the snow, and we could see where it was eating off the hay bales,” Bardo said.
It took minimal effort to corral the animal in the barn’s milkhouse. Tracks in the snow indicated the animal had already been in the barn.
The family figures the animal came around in search of food and shelter.
“It will drink water from a bucket and it moved from the milkhouse into the barn easy. We think it’s been captive before,” Bardo said.
Friends and neighbors have been giving the Bardos printouts of Internet information about the nilgai, and it’s helpful since nobody is quite sure where the animal came from or how it got to the area.
The nilgai, pronounced nil-ji, is the largest of all Asian antelopes and is a wild animal native to India and Pakistan.
Internet searches show nilgai were brought to Texas in the 1920s as a zoo animal. Today, there are game ranches in Texas that raise the animals, and there’s a wild population in Texas and Alabama.
Nilgai, on average, stand 4-5 feet at the shoulder and have backs that slope downward toward the back legs, sort of like a giraffe.
Nilgai have bristly manes that stand up on the back of their necks and a beard of hair on the throat. Females, like the one captured, are light brown.
The animal has a head shaped like a pony, with a nose wider than a deer, and erect ears with black and white stripes inside.
The nilgai also has stripes of black and white hair above its hooves.
Mature male nilgai can weigh more than 600 pounds. They can live up to 21 years.
In the months the animal has been running loose in the area, nobody has come forward to claim it.
Prior contacts with exotic animal ranches in the area have proven to be dead ends: Nobody will admit to losing the animal, news reports say.
Nobody has reported the animal as escaped from the exotic animal sale in Mount Hope, Ohio, either.
The Bardos hope that catching the creature will bring its rightful owner out of hiding, no matter what kind of liability issues there are.
“We’re concerned for its safety. Who knows how it even got through deer season.”
The Bardos consulted their farm veterinarian about the animal, but still aren’t sure whether it’s a disease threat to their herd.
Nevertheless, they’re keeping it penned in their barn until its owner can be found.
Bardo’s husband, Les, said he called the National Wildlife Federation in an attempt to figure out what’s next, but that group said since it wasn’t a native species, they didn’t have a clue, either.
The agency did say one thing, though: Don’t let it loose.
In the two weeks the animal has been penned on the farm, it’s shown little skittishness, the Bardos say.
“She’s calm at night. She’ll come right up and sniff you,” Bardo said. The animal doesn’t appear to try to jump fences, either.
Close friends of the family have come to see the animal, but the family isn’t at all willing to let others visit or turn their farm into a petting zoo.
They insist they’ll release the animal only to a person who can prove the animal is his.
“Who knows why that kind of animal is in this area running around. And why isn’t someone out looking for it?” Paula Bardo wonders.
Anyone with information on the animal should call Farm and Dairy.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)