The Appalachian Black Panther Fact or Fiction?

Controversy grips America. You can hear it in the diners and around dining room tables.  You can hear it in the conversations on the streets.  You can certainly hear it all over the interwebz.  What?  The Donald and his red hat is shocking the world again?  One tweet at a time?  Good guess, but no.  This controversial topic is much older than that.  Older than the hills, actually, yet it still persists today.  I’m talking about CATS.  Big black ones.

Most of us know someone who swears they have seen a black panther type animal in the wilds of this great and vast country of ours.  There are hundreds of alleged sightings each year, all over the country.  And yet wildlife authorities are absolutely insistent that these sightings simply can not be correct, and these are cases of mistaken identity.  What’s really going on here?

The big black cat phenomenon is actually bigger and more prevalent than our other famous mythical resident, Bigfoot.  More people claim to have run ins with these cats than the large footed creature with “beeyooteeful hair” (but don’t get too close, because I hear the bad body odor will knock your socks off).

Before we go any further, I’d to make a disclosure.  I have indeed seen one of these big black cats!  It is something I will never forget.  I might forget my children’s birthdays, or my wedding anniversary once in a while, but I will never forget what I saw one hot, summer day in North Carolina.  More about that later.  Let’s go back in time and see what the past and our ancestors have to say about this topic, for they are always speaking, to those who desire to learn.

The Erie Indians got their name from the word Erielhonan, which means “long tail”.  They were also known as the Cat People, or the Cat Nation (Nation du chat) because of the wild cat that lived in their territory.   The Native Peoples and early Settlers all spoke of big cats.  But identifying which type of big cat they were referring to, is almost impossible to say.  Often times, they did not even know themselves.  Most Native cultures had myths and legends surrounding “panthers”.  They were revered as powerful hunters and leaders, and associated with magical powers.  They earned the honor and respect of all dwelling in the land.

Early Colonists had many names for these big cats: tygers, catamounts, lions, painters, pards, panthers, etc.  “They were the most feared of all wild beasts, more sinister than wolves or bears and harder to hunt”, says The History Bandits.  But even then, their existence was not believed by everybody.  One early Settler wrote, “Lyons I will not positively affirme that the Country hath, synce our people never yet saw any”, although he did admit to seeing skins and claws among the local Indians.  Another quote from The History Bandits is, “According to records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Rafinesque claimed that he saw jaguar skins nailed to the walls of barns along the frontier and spoke with hunters that claimed they had killed jaguars in Kentucky, Ohio, and the Lake Erie region of New York.  The Frenchman theorized that the cats migrated north and east in the summer months, retreating south in the winter”.

I once read an old family history book, belonging to my husband’s grandmother, who grew up in rural Trigg County Kentucky.  It relayed a story from the 1800’s about a “wild cat” being stuck in the chimney of the school house, and giving everyone a terrible fright.  What exactly was this “wild cat” that terrorized these poor school children?  Who knows.  But the undeniable fact is that the wild cats of North America have sparked the interest and imagination of each generation.  It is evident everywhere – from the stories we hear, past and present, to the mascots of hundreds of schools and sports teams.

Jaguarundi

There are many felines native to North America, large and small.  Some are still with us today, and sadly, some are not.  The following is a current list of non extinct residents of the US.  The Ocelot, also called a dwarf leopard, looks like a small jaguar.  They range between 20-40lbs, and live mainly in the extreme southwest (southern Texas and Arizona), but at one time roamed as far as Arkansas.  The Jaguarundi (which is a lot of fun to say) is seen mostly in Texas and is not well understood – it is believed to be a relation to the cougar, but smaller in size.  The majestic Jaguar once roamed all over the US, at least as far north as North Carolina, but now is confined to, again, the extreme Southwest.  Then we have the Bobcat, Cougar (Mountain Lion, Florida Panther), and Lynx.  These are the ones that academia admit to.

Now we get to the second issue – which ones can be melanistic (black)?  Geneticists say that it is rare but possible to see melanism in jaguars and bobcats, but there is no documented case of a melanistic cougar.

So, what are people seeing when they say they’ve seen a big black cat?   It is usually explained away as being a large house cat, a coyote, a bear, a dog, etc.  Is it possible that some of the hundreds of sightings are indeed cases of mistaken identity?  Sure.  But are they all?  No, I really don’t think so.  If you have never seen one personally, you will be more likely to not believe these stories.  But if you have seen one, like me, chances are you will be more open minded to the possibilities.

About 15 years ago I was visiting family who were temporarily living in rural North Carolina, on the border of South Carolina.  One afternoon I went out to my car, and looked out past the road, into a crop field bordered by woods.  Out of the woods came a big black cat.  It was slinking around the field, staying low to the ground.  I was in shock at what I was seeing.  This was no ordinary housecat.  I’ve been around cats and dogs all my life.  I know their average size.  This was BIG.  I watched it for a few minutes, then went back into the house to get some binoculars for a better look, but when I got back out it was gone.

As it turns out, another author for The Hunting News has had an encounter as well!  This incident took place in south eastern Ohio.  Here is his testimony.   “I was out turkey hunting and talking to a turkey.  I decided to move closer and got into a really thick area, looking into a clearing.  I caught some movement to my right behind some brush.  I watched a large solid black cat walk into a clearing 25 yards away and disappeared into the brush behind me.  I was completely confused when I saw another one slightly smaller take the same path just seconds after.  I rant into the field scared with my gun ready to shoot.  These cats were bigger than any coyote I had ever seen.  When I got into the field my cousin was there and asked me why I was so freaked out.  It takes a lot to scare me in the woods since I grew up walking around that area alone as a child.  I never claimed what I saw was a panther.  I have been very confused since I saw it.  But I know what I saw and it freaked me out.”

We want to hear from you!  Have you seen one of these elusive beasts?  Tell us your story!

 

Christina Jandecka Futrell

 

Notes

http://www.dickshovel.com/erie.html

http://www.native-languages.org/legends-panther.htm

https://thehistorybandits.com/2017/06/06/big-cats-of-the-southeast-part-1-the-panther-in-american-history/

https://owlcation.com/stem/The-Four-Wildcats-of-North-America

https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/9-animals-you-might-not-know-are-native-to-the-us

https://www.ncwildlife.org/News-Archives/the-legendary-cat-of-the-mountains-and-the-swamps-is-just-that-a-legend