Sheba, the frisky young cougar seized by Maryland authorities after they found her in the care of a Jessup family, headed for a new home yesterday, but not before demonstrating why lions don't make good pets.

The wild cat was in her cage getting acquainted with the man who had come to adopt her when she suddenly leapt atop his head and shoulders, knocking his glasses off and nicking his forehead, drawing a spot of blood.

"She's strong," said Bill Vanscoy, superintendent of the West Virginia State Wildlife Center. "One of us is going to get hurt here."

Vanscoy unwrapped Sheba from his upper torso and wrestled her to the ground.

When the introductions were over, Sheba was led into a large wooden box that held her for a 4 1/2-hour ride from the Howard County Animal Control Facility to the West Virginia center, where she will roam a one-acre pen with a new companion, a year-old male cougar.

Sheba's departure yesterday ended a still mysterious odyssey that brought her to the house of a Jessup family of 10. Dorothy Louise Whitacker told the police that her husband bought the cougar as a birthday present from a man known only as P.J., who said he raised cougars in Florida. A neighbor alerted Howard County police to the cat and she was seized by wildlife authorities Oct. 25.

Whitacker eventually was ordered to surrender the cougar and pay for its boarding costs, which will total about $275.

State wildlife officials are still trying to determine how Sheba got into the state, and if she came with a companion. Cougars, also known as mountain lions, panthers, puma, catamounts and painters, once roamed Maryland but do so no longer. It is illegal to import cougars to the state without a permit because the federal government has not approved a safe rabies vaccination for them.

"There seems to be a growing interest in bringing exotic animals into the state as pets," said Ken D'Loughy, a regional wildlife manager for Maryland's Forest, Parks and Wildlife Service. "There's kind of a mystique about it . . . . It's not humane to the animal and it is dangerous for the owner."

The Baltimore Zoo receives requests to take in exotic animals people tried to keep as pets "nearly every day," said Executive Director Brian A. Rutledge.

"There really isn't any regulation of these animals if they do not fall under the endangered species act," Rutledge said.

Vanscoy said his 375-acre public wildlife retreat in the north-central part of West Virginia accepts only animals that are native, or once were native, to West Virginia. All told, the retreat's 45-acre, fenced-in exhibit areas are home to about 60 to 75 animals.

When Sheba was seized, Maryland wildlife officials feared she would be difficult to place because she had been declawed and her teeth filed down, making her largely defenseless against other wild animals. They said she might have to be destroyed.

But some of the filed-down teeth turned out to be her baby ones and her permanent chops are now starting to come in. Vanscoy said she shouldn't have any trouble with her new mate.

"They'll stake out their territory but it won't last long," he said.