In the past thirty years of kicking around these hills, I have caught a fleeting glimpse of a bobcat on only two occasions. No doubt there are a goodly many of those cats roaming about, and they manage to remain almost invisible. So why doubt the ability of an even smaller number of panthers to evade detection.
At least most of the time. This week in the Cashiers newspaper, the Crossroads Chronicle, Nathaniel Axtell writes of a big cat spotted on Chattooga: "A U.S. Forest Service worker claims he dove into the Chattooga River last month to escape a black panther that was coming at him, less than two miles below the Burrell's Ford bridge."
Georgia wildlife officials thought it might have been a river otter. And despite numerous reports of black panthers spotted locally, an equally skeptical biologist in Highlands declared, "There is no such thing as a black panther." He added that if you let your imagination wander, even the tracks of a wild turkey will resemble those of a black panther. Well, what does that biologist think we are…stupid?
I agree with the reasoning of the forest service staffer’s co-worker, who concluded, "It had to be pretty scary to make him want to jump in the river that day." [More coverage of this story here.]
Back in 2002, biologist Donald Linzey went cougar hunting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and nailed a few sticky pads to a few trees, in an attempt to collect some cat hair. He never collected enough to do a DNA test, found no scat, no prints. Even so, he was convinced by the number of reported sightings that a few panthers still prowl the remote regions of the park.
But, like the Highlands biologist said, imagination is powerful. One report of a cougar jumping onto the roof of a mobile home near Brevard, NC turned out to be a flying squirrel.
If speculation about mountain lions in Cullowhee and the Western North Carolina mountains isn’t enough for you, then Cryptozoology.com has a running list of strange sightings…not just cougars and black panthers, but an albatross in the Niagara, a small animal mummy, a bushy tailed possum, and a skunk ape in Tennessee, to name just a few. Mighty good stuff. The biologist from Highlands would just shake his head in disgust, but there are some intriguing tales told of unusual critters seen where you’d least expect them. What’s wrong with a wandering imagination, anyhow?