Pity poor Sheba, a friendly 8-month-old cougar caught in a tug-of-war between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Jessup woman who kept her as a pet.

"We would certainly explore every available option . . . but destroying the animal is always the bottom-line consideration," said Ken D'Loughy, a regional wildlife manager for Maryland's Forest, Parks and Wildlife Service.

State wildlife officials are going to court today to prosecute Dorothy Louise Laws Whitaker for allegedly violating Maryland's endangered species law by keeping the large cat at her home without a permit.

If found guilty of the misdemeanor, Whitaker would face a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. She also is likely to lose custody of the animal, leaving Sheba's future in question.

Whitaker, 39, said she received the 50-pound animal in September as a birthday present. Largely defenseless against other cougars because she has had her claws removed and her teeth filed down, Sheba is unsuitable to be placed with them, significantly reducing her adoption possibilities.

Cougars do not need claws and teeth to be lethal to humans, according to Brian A. Rutledge, executive director of the Baltimore Zoo. Studies have shown that cougars are able to kill elk weighing up to 500 pounds by "slapping them on the head and imploding their skulls," Rutledge said, adding that "an elk's skull is substantially stronger than a human skull. They certainly have no place around people."

Sheba has been held since Oct. 25 at Howard County's Animal Control facility, with only a deflated basketball and a scruffy blanket for company. She will remain at the facility at least until Whitaker's trial is over.

Sheba, who Whitaker said came from Florida, was seized by Maryland authorities after a neighbor called police.

Whitaker, who has eight children, said the cougar has never hurt anyone. "It would play with my kids," she said. "I hope they don't destroy it."

She said her husband paid about $2,500 for the cat. And, she said, Sheba quickly grew comfortable with the family's dogs and domesticated cats. But some authorities said Sheba appeared to be poorly cared for.

The cougar, also known as an eastern mountain lion, is considered an "endangered extirpated species" in Maryland, meaning that naturally occurring populations, once common, no longer can be found.

One type of cougar, the Florida panther, is nearly extinct in that state, and another type is prevalent in western Missouri, Rutledge said.

Rutledge said it is difficult to find new homes for cougars. There is a waiting list for people wanting to give their cougars to zoos.

"We keep our pair on birth control so as not to produce any offspring that are not planned for," Rutledge said. "Zoos get requests all the time to take in wild animals that people no longer want to keep as pets, but we cannot be dumping grounds for exotica. States really need to do more to stop the irresponsible private breeders who deal in this sort of thing."

"It's always unfortunate to see something like this happen," D'Loughy said. "It's always the animal that has to take the brunt of it."