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Bearcat pride can be found at Cincinnati Zoo

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By John Herndon

We finally found a way to make Mark Peach speechless.

The Anderson County High School football coach is a talkative sort that rarely meets a stranger. During his playing days at Campbellsville University, he also earned academic all-american honors, so we know Peach is quite adept.

Until, that is, I asked the simple question, "What is a bearcat?"

Peach stammered, laughed and finally admitted, "I don't know" before deferring to running back B.J. Robinson, who was working out in the school weight room.

"It is an animal," Robinson answered. "I have seen pictures on the Internet. It looks like a wolf, but it is between a bear and a cat."

Hmmmmmm. Maybe from the mountains of eastern Kentucky?

"I don't know for sure, but that is what it looks like," Robinson said.

We also asked Judy Russell. I mean, who better to ask than someone who was a member of one of the greatest girls' basketball teams in Anderson County history and has had two sons play in four different sports and win several all-star awards for the Bearcats.

She broke into a big smile, laughed, and said, "I don't know. The picture in the gym (at the high school) looks like a wolverine."

So there is such a thing?

"I would say yes. I think they had one at the Game Farm for a while," Russell said of what is now known as the Salato Center and run by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in Frankfort.

Their responses are typical, but incorrect nonetheless.

The animal is neither bear nor cat, but a member of the mongoose family, says Eddie Annal, whose official title is bird trainer, but currently works with the baby bearcat on display at the Cincinnati Zoo.

"People don't know what to expect," he said as the yet unnamed bearcat crawled up his arm and down his back.

So people do wonder what a bearcat is?

"We have had some questions," Eddie said.

That's understandable, since the zoo is just around the corner from the University of Cincinnati, which also uses the bearcat as a mascot and, according to local legend, was the inspiration behind the Anderson Bearcats.

A few weeks ago, the zoo announced that it had the live baby bearcat in the zoo and, since I had been told a) the animal was the same thing as a wildcat b) another word name for a mountain lion and c) there was no such thing as a bearcat outside the realm of athletic mascots, I had to make the 2-hour trip.

"We had another one but it died several years ago," said Tiffany Sands, public relations co-ordinator for the zoo. That bearcat met David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Prince Charles and Newt Gingrich, among others.

The baby was born Jan. 17 and quickly made its way to Cincinnati.

"We got this one from a private breeder in Texas," Sands said.

And, she said, the animal is known more as a UC mascot than one that sleeps in trees and uses a tail almost as long as the rest of its body to hang from trees.

"We get a lot of requests for a picture," Sands said. "There have been times when there is a big game (for UC) and ESPN has called to see if we had one. We had to tell them no."

That's not the case any more. Not only is there a baby, whose name will be announced Friday, but the zoo also has a full-grown adult that weighs in at about 40 pounds. "We could not train him to interact with people like we can the baby," Sands said. "He is in the nocturnal house."

For the record, the zoo is also home to a live bengal tiger. He really is a bit more fearsome than the football team that plays a few miles away.

So what is this little critter and what is he really like?

It is actually a she and has long black and gray fur along with some paws that can dig in big time. In the dense forests of her native southeast Asia, those help the bearcat climb trees and look for food.

The baby is inquisitive, readily checking out the visitor from central Kentucky and climbing up his arm.

"She's very playful and interested in a lot of different things," Annal said. "She likes to smell things. She is getting used to people and different noises."

That's good, since the baby bearcat will be leaving the nursery and be part of the zoo's Great American Wings of Wonder Bird Show twice a day, starting on Memorial Day. From that point on, the show will be the only time the public can see her at the zoo.

But a playful, gentle animal isn't exactly the kind of mascot to conjure up fear in the eyes of an opponent. "When I think of a bearcat, I think of pride," said Robinson.

In its native habitat of southeast Asia, the bearcat, also known in zoological circles as the binturong, would oblige the local Bearcats just fine.

"They are not like a tiger or lion that will stalk their prey," Annal said, "but if they are cornered, they will fight."

Which is just what Peach, or any other Anderson coach, would like for his team. "I want them to be ferocious in Anderson County," he said with a big grin.

The baby bearcat at the Cincinnati Zoo isn't ferocious but I know I don't want to back her in a corner.

And now, thanks to the good people at the Cincinnati Zoo, we know exactly what a bearcat is. It's not native to Kentucky, or even the United States. Naturally, it doesn't even live here at all.

It's not a bear and it's not a cat.

But it's different. Very different.

And most of all, very cool.