Panthers in Alabama: Fact or Folklore
By DAVID RAINER
While trying to finish my Christmas shopping in late December, I got a phone call from Dave in north Alabama.
“I need to tell you what I saw last night,” Dave said. “I’m a painter and I had just finished a job outside town. It was dark and as I pulled out of the driveway, about 50-60 yards in front of me, four deer ran across the road. My headlights were shining right on them. Then about 30 yards behind the deer were two big black cats. They looked like they were about four feet long and their tails were about four feet long. I got a good look at them. Because I’m a painter, I know all about colors and hues. These cats looked like a cougar that had been spray-painted black.”
All of my life I’ve heard stories of panthers lurking in cane breaks and thickets. The bone-chilling cat screams would make the bravest of men look for an escape route. Yet, for the most part, the stories only included fleeting glimpses of the cats.
That, however, does not diminish the hunting-camp banter about whether these elusive animals exist. And I’m certainly not going to be the one to say there isn’t some kind of “panther” out there. Dave’s call piqued my interest, so I started asking around. Most had never seen anything that resembled a panther, but they were sure up on the folklore about the creatures that haunt the night, almost like apparitions.
One friend I asked recently said, “I saw something years ago near Hal’s Lake that looked like a big cat to me. It was tawny in color, about like a deer, and it looked like it weighed about 50 pounds. Oh, and the tail was about as long as its body.”
Another friend recalled stories from his past, relating the sightings of a lady in rural Choctaw County who had to walk about 3 miles to visit her brother. “Miss Dora (name has been changed to protect the innocent) sometimes had to walk back home at night. She carried a lighter stick for a torch and she said she’d seen all three kinds of panthers – tan, black and spotted. And Miss Dora never lied.”
The strangeness multiplied after watching a piece on the History Channel called Monsterquest, where researchers were investigating sightings of black panthers. There was some evidence presented that the cats indeed exist, but the researchers shot down each one and concluded otherwise.
These reports of big cats are nothing new for Mark Sasser and Keith Guyse of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
Sasser, Non-Game Wildlife Coordinator, said there is one basic problem with black panther sightings.
“First thing, anytime someone tells us they have seen a black panther – they do not exist,” Sasser said. “There has never been a melanistic (black) species of cougar (Puma concolor) in the wild or in captivity. We’ve never been able to document any of the panther sightings through scat, sightings or photographs.
“The Florida panther is the only member of the species known to exist in Alabama and it was extirpated years ago. A biologist in south Alabama was given a skull in Crenshaw County. He examined it and said it was definitely a cougar skull. But, all the front teeth were missing or broken out. It made you think of a captive animal who had chewed on a cage. A wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Emmett Blankenship, who works on the panther project with Florida examined it and indicated there were saw marks on the back of the skull. He concluded it was a captive cat that died and was probably dumped in the woods.”
As far as Sasser knows, there aren’t any Florida panthers in the Florida Panhandle, although there are some western cougars in captivity in both Alabama and the Panhandle.
“There was a sighting in northwest Florida and a reported kill on the interstate,” he said. “It was a panther, but when we got to investigating it, a plantation owner had some western cougars brought in illegally and released on his plantation. This roadkill panther certainly was not native to the area.
“There are melanistic animals in the jaguar and leopard species, which are not native to North America. So, it’s highly unlikely for one to be out there in the wild. There have been valid sightings of cougars up toward Missouri. They may spread this way, because they travel incredible distances. But the sightings we get now are escaped captive animals. The thing is, as many trail cameras as there are out there, we should get a picture of one.”
Guyse said reports of “panther” sightings are nothing new for the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries folks.
“It’s something we’ve dealt with all through the years,” Guyse said. “Even though we don’t keep a log, I’d say we get two calls a week that people see or hear something they attribute to a big cat. Our district offices get calls and we’ve gone out and looked at things. We’ve never been able to confirm the existence of a panther. We’ve never had a road kill. We don’t have many bears, but we occasionally get a road kill. I don’t know what they’re seeing. Some are just telling a story to get attention, but most are not. They’re serious. They believe in what they saw. We don’t know what it is. None of the museum specimens have ever been black – Western or Florida panther.
“We’ve also got reports of seeing a jaguarundi. There is some evidence that somebody like Johnny Appleseed has been planting these animals.”
The jaguarundi, smaller than a cougar, can reach 50 inches in length with a long tail and generally will weigh no more than 20 pounds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The jaguarundi, which is native to Central and South America, does exist in the Southwest U.S., and reports indicate there may be a small population in Florida. The cat’s coat ranges in color from dark brown to a dark reddish tint.
Guyse said the last hard evidence that a big cat existed in Alabama was in the 1940s.
“The last documented occurrence is in a department report in the late 40s,” he said. “There is a picture of one (panther) in the pickup truck of a farmer in St. Clair county. There were a few credible reports after that, but not many. After that, it died out.”
Guyse said there is indeed a possibility captive animals have escaped or been released.
“We know there have been some situations where captive cougars have gotten out,” he said. “But they are captured quickly because they just can’t make it.
“It takes a certain population level to sustain itself. You can’t do it with one or two panthers. Florida consistently estimates its population at less than 100. Their road kill was up in the 20s and we don’t get any. I can’t believe if we had a population large enough to keep itself going, we wouldn’t have some evidence.”
However, Guyse is not about to argue with a person who claims to have seen a black panther.
“I’m pretty confident that we don’t have cougars in the wild that were born of parents in the wild,” he said. “I think if we had a population large enough to sustain itself, we would find evidence.
“But we’re willing to go look at any evidence someone might have of a big cat. Protect it so we can take a look at it.”
PHOTOS: (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) The Florida Panther, top photo, may have once roamed Alabama, but no evidence of the big cat has been substantiated since the 1940s.
The jaguarundi, bottom photo, is smaller than the panther and has expanded its range from Central and South America into parts of the U.S.