A Kootenay woman who photographed a cheetah wandering along the side of a snowy B.C. highway says she hopes the exotic cat will be captured safely, and not shot.

Samantha Istance was driving along Highway 3A between Kootenay Bay and Crawford Bay on Thursday afternoon when she spotted the big cat on the side of the road.

"My first thought was that's a cheetah. What's it doing there?" she told CBC News Friday morning.

Curious, she got out of her car and snapped some photos of the animal, and noted it appeared to be panting and in distress.

Cheetah on the loose

Until the animal is located people are asked to be vigilant while outdoors, especially with their small children and animals. B.C. Conservation Services advises that a cheetah is typically shy and less aggressive than other members of the Felidae family. Regardless of it having a collar on, it should be considered and respected as a wild animal. (RCMP)

"I saw it had a collar on so I tried to coax it over. There is not really much reason for a cheetah to be in this part of the world unless it is somewhat domesticated or at least in captivity.

"But it won't come anywhere near me. It just kept wandering up the road, so I followed it up the road for a while, snapped a couple more pictures and tried again to coax it over."

Istance thought if she could get the animal in the back of her car, she might be able to help it somehow, but the cheetah obviously felt otherwise.

"Then it just bounced off over the bank, and it was gone."

Police warning issued

Creston RCMP are warning residents in the area to be on the lookout for the large, possibly dangerous cat wearing an orange cloth collar, and authorities are hoping to speak with the cheetah's owner.

The principal of Crawford Bay School said staff learned about the cheetah before last night's Christmas concert, and today elementary and secondary students will stay inside at recess and during lunch.

Laury McPherson said the children are generally excited about the chance to see a cheetah in the area where wild animals, such as bears, are not uncommon.

"Some of the little ones are a little bit worried because a cheetah is exotic. So we've talked about what you do when you encounter a cougar or a cheetah, like making yourself large," McPherson said. 

RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said in a release that residents in the area have also been notified.

Cheetahs are typically more shy and less aggressive than other large cats, but should be treated like a wild animal despite its collar, according to Moskaluk.

Cheetah on the loose

The witness was able to photograph the animal and reported the incident to the Creston RCMP. It was observed to be wearing an orange cloth collar. (RCMP)

B.C. conservation officer Insp. Joe Caravetta said three officers are out searching for the big cat.

"It can survive for a few days in the temperatures as such. We recently had a snowfall last night so we hope that will allow us to find its tracks," he said.

Caravetta said since cheetahs won't climb up a tree when threatened or pursued, officers won't be able to use the same strategies they use to capture a cougar.

"We are going to have to try to maybe bait it, or get an opportunity to tranquillize it."

Cheetahs need permits

In B.C., cheetahs are considered a "controlled alien species" and require a permit under the Wildlife Act.

The only permit to possess a cheetah in the whole province is held by a zoo in the Vancouver area, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations — making it unlikely this cheetah is legally in the province.

Someone in the Kootenay region has applied to possess a cheetah, but that application is currently under review by the ministry, and staff said in a statement there is "no indication or information as to whether the cheetah is on the loose or could be related to the above permit application."

B.C. residents who do not obtain a permit for their exotic animal can be fined up to $250,000 and face a maximum of two years in prison, and the animal could be seized, under provincial law.

Anyone who catches a glimpse of the cat is asked to steer clear and call 911, or contact the B.C. Conservation Service at (877) 952-7277.

Meanwhile the woman who spotted it, hopes things work out for the best for the big cat.

"I hope the poor thing survives. I hope this whole incident does not lead to it being shot," said Istance.

Google Maps: Kootenay Bay, B.C.

With files from Farrah Merali, Lisa Johnson and the Canadian Press