Everyone wants to know, “Are there any panthers in these hills?” Beyond the occasional hoax or some second-hand anecdote, what do those in-the-know say about it?
Don Linzey, from Wytheville Community College in Virginia, has done as much as anyone to investigate the eastern cougar. He summarized the prospects for panthers in the Summer 2005 issue of ATBI (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory) Quarterly. In the area now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the last verified evidence of a panther was in 1920, when one was shot and killed near present-day Fontana Village. Linzey gives credence to two photographs of panthers in the Park:
In 2001, a Park visitor observed a panther looking out of a small cave and captured it on video. I later examined the cave but was unable to locate any evidence. In 2004, another visitor took a full broadside photograph of a panther in Cades Cove.
Several methods had been employed, without success, to verify the presence of the big cats:
In 2001, rubbing pads were used as a technique for obtaining hairs for DNA analysis. Sixty-five pads were in operation; however, panther hair was never collected. Also, remote heat-sensing, infra-red cameras have been used and have captured images of various animals, but still no panther.
Linzey has posted field guide information on panthers at:
Now that we’ve held our panther under the stark, bright light of 21st-century science, let’s return to the campfire for a chilling tale from the late-1800s, as passed along by Hattie Caldwell Davis in Reflections of Cataloochee Valley.
Mary Ann “Granny Pop” Colwell, who lived on Big Cataloochee, had gone to visit her married daughters on Little Cataloochee. Crossing Davidson Gap on her way back home, Granny Pop saw a panther perched in a tree, so she left the trail and circled through the woods to avoid the big cat. But soon after she got back onto the trail, she could see the panther following along behind her.
He was getting closer and she knew she’d never out-run him. After thinking about her predicament, she removed her apron, dropped it on the trail and walked faster. In a few moments, Granny Pop glanced back. Sure enough, the panther had paused to examine the apron.
Soon, though, the panther was following her again, and getting closer. She dropped another piece of clothing, and when the panther reached it, he paused to sniff at the garment and inspect it. But when he lost interest in the clothing, he resumed his quest of Granny Pop.
This happened over and over again for the next three or four miles. By the time Granny Pop got back home she was buck nekkid, but thankful to be alive.
After the men folks heard her story, they followed the panther’s tracks, set a trap and caught him.
So much for the panther of Davidson Gap…
Mary Ann "Granny Pop" Colwell (1817-1917)
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