By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Nicole Anderson rode along a busy Milwaukee thoroughfare where she got plenty of stares, double takes and fingers pointing at her not only because she was nude, but because she was painted head to toe like a lion.
Interest in all things lions has reached new heights in Milwaukee as the city's fixation with its feline version of Bigfoot - does it exist and is it really a lion? - has dominated local news, water-cooler talk and social media.
Milwaukeeans are captivated by the possibility that a lion is roaming their city.
"We found the Milwaukee lion," proudly proclaimed Ken Kenitz, as he sped along with Anderson, who was covered in bronze body paint while wearing fake white whiskers, fluffy ears and long black fingernails.
Kenitz, a body painter, and Anderson, his canvass, had just finished a photo shoot at several city landmarks as a way to document the lion craze that has consumed Milwaukee after several "lion-like animal" sightings were reported to police during the last week.
Many residents also fear for the lion's well-being. On Tuesday, a pit bull was shot in the paw when a gunman thought he had the large cat in his sights.
"I would only shoot it as a last resort .... I hope they can tranquilize it," said Reggie Bonds as he did maintenance work around two stone lions outside of a Milwaukee funeral home. "I am wondering how it got here, but it probably was someone's pet."
Wisconsin is one of six states that do not prohibit the owning of a lion as a pet, but Milwaukee ordinance bans ownership of dangerous animals.
Some have taken to social media to compare Milwaukee's lion to the Cowardly Lion in the movie Wizard of Oz. The Milwaukee lion was "spotted in our parking lot dancing and singing with a girl in red shoes!" the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee tweeted.
A handful of social media accounts posing as the lion have also been created.
"I love gazelles ... but there is sort of a manhunt going on right now," one Tweet said. Playing off the city's nickname from its brewing history, the tagline of a Facebook account was "Just a cat that hangs out in Brew City."
Businesses have also gotten into the act, such as the Roman Coin, a tavern on the city's East Side, that deems itself a "lion safety zone" on its sidewalk sign. A billboard company is also posting messages such as "let's play hide-and-go-seek" with portraits of lions on boards throughout the city.
"It's a fun way ... to look at what's going on," said Kurt Weis, a vice president of Lamar Advertising.
A local print shop has even created and sold more than 90 "I survived #MkeLion" T-shirts.
"We are just having fun with the craze," said Brad Kuehl, the general manager at Eggers Imprints.
The Milwaukee Zoo, where several lions reside, assured the community that no lions were missing from its facility before it posted a few Tweets making light of the sightings.
"On Wednesdays, Milwaukee County residents receive reduced admission. But remember, that's humans only," it Tweeted with a photo of a lion.
(Reporting By Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Sandra Maler)