Tiger sighting near Knoxville prompts widespread search in eastern Tennessee

A sheriff's deputy said they spotted a big cat on Wednesday night, now the sheriff's office is working with air watch and wildlife agencies to find the animal.

A tiger on the loose was spotted in Knoxville, Tennessee, late Wednesday night, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

The sheriff’s office said they are working with Knoxville police, air watch, animal control and Tiger Haven, a big cat rescue in Kingston, to “capture a tiger that was last spotted by a deputy in the Forks of the River Industrial Park.”

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency said that a separate sighting was reported to officials near Thorngrove Pike, but has not yet confirmed whether the animal is a tiger.

"A trap has been set and if the animal is caught, it will be taken to Tiger Haven," a TWRA spokesperson said in an email Thursday morning.

The Knoxville Zoo said on Twitter that they were not missing any big cats and all tigers are accounted for as of Thursday morning.

Tiger Haven did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday, but co-founder Mary Lynn Parker told Knoxville News Sentinel that their facility was not missing any tigers either.

The deputy who who spotted the large cat on Wednesday night said it appeared to be striped and between 150 to 200 pounds, Parker said. Based on the deputy's description, she said the tiger was "juvenile" and likely feral, since big cats native to the area were typically "more slender."

Owning a tiger is illegal in Tennessee, she said, "but that doesn't stop anyone."

There is no existing federal law regulating big cat ownership in the U.S., leading to a patchwork of state laws governing private captivity — an issue that was brought to the global spotlight with the release of Netflix documentary "Tiger King."

Thousands of tigers live in captivity across the U.S., with fewer than 6 percent living in accredited zoos. Because a majority are held in small zoos and animal attractions with widely varying standards, the animals are often subjected to neglect and abuse.

The issue rose to national prominence in 2011 in what came to be knows as the "Zanesville animal massacre," when 48 animals — including tigers, lions and bears — were killed by authorities in Ohio after a private zoo owner set them loose. Prior to the incident, the Muskingum County Animal Farm was repeatedly reported for inadequate care and unsafe housing for its animals.

Anyone with information or sightings of the missing tiger should contact the Knox County Sheriff's Office.