Earlier this month, I was able to listen to some fantastic stories at the 2011 Texas Bigfoot Conference that was held by the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. There were many excellent speakers there, but these weren't Halloween campfire story tellers. They were doctors, specialists, and authors from many different fields of study. There were photographs shown, evidence presented, theories analyzed, and questions both asked and answered. Some of the stories of interest were not specifically on the Bigfoot phenomena, but on the mysterious large black cats that have been reported and told about in many parts of the United States, including Texas, which was the focus of the days presentation. Chester Moore, author, executive editor of Texas Fish & Game, Outdoors Editor for the Orange Leader and Port Arthur News, and consultant for the Animal Planet, The Travel Channel, and National Geographic, gave an excellent presentation on these mysterious animals and told some stories worthy of not only campfires, but of classrooms and anyone interested in the subject of mysterious animals.
Many skeptics will say that there's no such animal as a large black cat in the U.S. They will say that there's not a chance. First of all, as explained by Moore, there is no "black panther", as they are commonly referred to. There is no such species in existence. It is simply a generic term used to describe large black cats, usually Jaguars. Melanistic cougars are tossed up as an explanation for the sightings, but are quickly ruled out because there's never been so much as a photo taken of a melanistic cougar. The only one close to being black was in a grainy black and white photograph taken in Costa Rica in 1954 of a dark brown one that was killed. According to Mr. Moore, as many cougars as there are in the Americas, there's never been any melanistic ones photographed, observed, tagged, shot, or trapped. Legends of escaped circus animals or exotic pets and their descendants are told by believers to explain the black cat's existence, but this theory also has it's flaws. The main one being that an escaped large cat that has spent it's life in captivity does not know how to hunt enough to survive. Unlike feral house cats, they need more than a mouse or a bird to live. They can make a kill out of an easy target, but hunting for years in order to feed itself and it's young is extremely unlikely. This is evident by observations made by refuge employees who have been unsuccessful to reintroduce captive Tigers to wild habitats. The evidence seems to be pointing away from the existence of large black cats in the U.S., but as the saying goes, don't count your chickens before they hatch.
People are often accused of seeing things or making up stories when they see these large black cats. Sometimes they're even told that they're seeing somebody's big black domestic American Shorthair and, while letting their wild imagination get a hold of the best of themselves, they think they're seeing some mysterious and fabled beast. I should know. I used to have a large black domestic-bobcat hybrid (rumored to be) who, after proudly walking the perimeter of our rail fence and chasing many a dog away, was probably exaggerated in stories told by the neighborhood kids and the superstitious friends. But large black cats are here in the U.S. and they're not the subjects of fables, exaggerations, or misidentifications. They're very real.
We ask if it could then be something like the "black panthers" of South America, which are really melanistic jaguars? "Nah, this isn't topical South America", we're told. Doubters who are stuck on the images of black jaguars leaping through vine covered trees to avoid the flooding Amazon will say that the climate and terrain just isn't suitable for them. The curious will also ask, if they're jaguars, why aren't we seeing spotted ones. The truth, as told during Moore's presentation, is that the southern U.S. has in fact been host to spotted jaguars. According to wildlife maps drawn up in the 1940's, there were jaguars as far east as Mississippi. However, as time passes and wild areas are taken over by subdivisions and factories, animals that once roamed the countrysides move around to avoid us and are soon forgotten about. Maps are redrawn to reflect not only sightings and lack of, but the possible worries of industries who are encouraged to feel uncomfortable about being in territories that beautiful, wild and mysterious creatures call home. If they were here before though, there's a possibility that they're still around. This is especially so, given the large amount of wild habitat that is actually left, combined with the shrinking number of people who are quick to shoot a predator who is stalking their farm. In the process of human expansion, we've actually made nice little pockets of very inviting habitat for some very interesting creatures. The fact that jaguars are currently known by biologists to live in Arizona and New Mexico are proof. The numerous reports from Texas and Louisiana concerning spotted jaguars that Moore has received or reviewed just adds to that proof.
Though it's true that the melanistic gene in jaguars is not that common, it's highly possible. It even seems that there are more reports of black jaguars than spotted ones. If it is indeed jaguars that are being spotted, the answer could be very simple. It's been thought by biologists that melanism presents an advantage in animals that are inhabiting areas where a black coat would be handy. Dark and shady dense forests would be prime. There are even pockets in Asia for example where most of the leopards are melanistic. Since most of the states where large black cats are spotted contain this type of landscape, and since melanistic bobcats have been proven to exist in the southeastern part of the U.S., it's not too surprising to think that there could be areas where melanistic jaguars could be more populous than spotted ones.
Another culprit for the "black panther" sightings, as stated by Moore, could be the jaguarundi. Our habitat is so suited to them that he believes most of the black cat sightings could be attributed to the jaguarundi. He himself saw one in Jefferson County in southeast Texas ten years ago. In the 1960s there was even an abundance of reports of them around the Galveston and Port Arthur areas of southeast Texas. In 1984, there were unconfirmed reports of a local biologist seeing three of them. Seeing that jaguarundis can grow as long as four feet (sometimes larger) and are usually brown to dark grey and black in color, the jaguarundi could in fact be the subject of many of our state's "black panther" sightings.
Before the evening was up, there were several stories told at the conference about sightings of large black cats. A few of these stories reflected one of the problems with any cryptozoological subject: the unwillingness of some people to look past what's commonly cited as normal or official and admit that we don't really know what's out there. As Moore jokingly mocked, "we're not going to go there because it says that in the book". He later related the story of a woman who gave a television interview after seeing a large black cat carry away one of her goats (one that weighed in at about one hundred pounds) near her home in Vidor, Texas. Of course a wildlife official appeared on the segment offering his opinion. Did the official investigate the woman's sighting? Was she asked questions out of concern for an undocumented large cat killing livestock? No. He merely stated that "it could have been an otter". No need to be alarmed and nothing to worry about. It's just an otter large enough to carry away a one hundred pound goat. Call me crazy, but that seems more worthy of investigating than a large black cat.
After the evidence is presented and the stories are told, it definitely appears that it is very possible for a species of large black feline to be roaming certain areas of the U.S.. What it is exactly remains unclear. Should we be frightened and include it in our campfire stories? It won't hurt to include them in an embellished story or two. After all, they are elusive, highly intelligent, and very mysterious. But there's no need to be frightened. In this day and time, we're far more prone to falling victim to someone driving while on the phone or from being mauled by someone's abused dog than we are being attacked by one of these beautiful creatures. If I were you though, the next time you're outside, alone in the dark, hold your kids close to you and keep your eyes and ears open for the legendary goat killing otter of southeast Texas.
Reverend Chaos (aka Shawna Lowman)