Sheba, a playful 8-month-old cougar, became a ward of Maryland yesterday after a Howard County judge ordered that she not be returned to the Jessup family that kept her as a pet.

General District Court Judge Russell Sadler ordered that the 50-pound cat be forfeited to the Department of Natural Resources, which will try to find an appropriate home for her.

State officials said they have some leads on a new home, but that placement could be difficult because Sheba has had her claws removed and teeth ground down in an attempt to make her less dangerous.

"It would be a crime to destroy her," Sadler said shortly before finding Sheba's owner, Dorothy Louise Whitaker, guilty of possessing the animal without a permit, a misdemeanor.

Whitaker, who faced up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, was put on six months' probation and ordered to pay the state's transportation expenses and boarding costs of about $5 a day for the cat. Each day, Sheba eats about 1 1/2 pounds of meat donated by the Baltimore Zoo.

After the hearing, a natural resources police officer said authorities are trying to determine how Sheba entered the state. He said her arrival here with a small male cougar might explain more than a dozen sightings of a mysterious cougar near Randallstown, Md., last month.

"I have a sneaking suspicion the cat the other people saw is her brother," Officer John Carpenter said.

Carpenter said Sheba was previously owned by a Baltimore couple who had her declawed and her teeth ground down by a Dundalk, Md., veterinarian.

When the couple fell behind in their payments for Sheba, who cost them about $2,000, the cougar was repossessed and sold to Whitaker's husband.

The Baltimore family said they originally were offered a choice between two cougar cubs, a male and female, Carpenter said.

Whitaker said in court that she knows the man who sold the cougar to her family only as "P.J." She said he told her husband that he had brought the cougar to Baltimore from Florida.

Bringing cougars into Maryland is against the law because the cats cannot be vaccinated against rabies. Cougars, also known as mountain lions, panthers, painters, puma and catamounts, naturally roamed Maryland about 200 years ago.

Whitaker testified that she tried to find out whether she needed a permit to own the animal, but "people acted like I was crazy, like I didn't know what I was talking about."

It was a neighbor of Whitaker's who first reported the animal to police.

Howard County police Sgt. Samuel Chayt testified that when he arrived at Whitaker's home Oct. 25 he was taken to a detached garage where a small "mountain lion emerged and playfully jumped up on us."

"It was obvious everyone was attached to this little lion," he said.

Whitaker, who has eight children, said Sheba never hurt anyone. Yesterday she visited Sheba at the Howard County Animal Control Center.

"I just hope nothing bad happens to her," Whitaker said.

Carpenter said the state will try to put Sheba in a zoo or an educational center "where we can teach people about the animal."