At the beginning of the 21st Century monsters still roam the remote, and sometimes not so remote, corners of our planet. It is our job to search for them. The Centre for Fortean Zoology [CFZ] is - we believe - the largest professional, scientific and full-time organisation in the world dedicated to cryptozoology - the study of unknown animals. Since 1992 the CFZ has carried out an unparalleled programme of research and investigation all over the world. Since 2009 we have been running the increasingly popular CFZ Blog Network, and although there has been an American branch of the CFZ for over ten years now, it is only now that it has a dedicated blog.

Monday, 20 January 2014

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PANTHER? ASKS ZACHARY MANN


What is a Black Panther?
          The other day, on one of my rare days off from work, I was shopping around in one of my favorite local used book stores. This is something I encourage everyone to do more often, you always find the greatest little treasures there. Anyway, I was looking through the non-fiction section trying to see if there were any books with a Cryptozoology twist to them. I found plenty on ghosts and a few on UFOs, but nothing that jumped out as Cryptid related. So I began looking through the more ‘traditional’ wildlife books and there I found something really interesting.
          In the section for mammals I saw a book with a hand drawn picture of a large black cat on it. This got me curious. Then I read the title, Black Panthers: Little Known North American Treasure, by Alfred Willis. This really got me interested, because as most of you will know, black (or melanistic) big cats of any kind are not supposed to live in America. Needless to say I wasted no time in purchasing it. As a side not, when I was at the checkout counter the lady behind the desk said she had seen this book when it came in earlier that day and, had no one bought it by the end of her shift, she would have. While I’m a little sad to have denied her that, it does show that many more people are interested in weird and unexplained animals than many might think.

    So, anyway, when I got home I read the table of contents and was more than pleasantly surprised when I saw that two whole sections of the book where about Virginia sightings. In fact more than half the total book was. As for the book itself, it’s about the author, Alfred Willis, growing up in Virginia, first hearing about Black Panthers, his two first hand encounters with said beasts, and his forty plus years traveling around the country (mostly Virginia) and collecting the first-hand accounts of the people who claimed to have had encounters. Interviews and stories range from people talking about what their grandparents and great grandparents (some dating back to the late 1800’s) to those who had just had encounters the same year this book was published, 2007.  As a side note,  while this book is very much about a Crypto zoological creature, the word Cryptozoology doesn’t feature anywhere in this book nor does it talk about similar creatures form anywhere else in the world.


The bulk of the written text is what the witnesses saw, meaning that the author must have audio recorded what the witnesses were saying and then just went home and typed it down. I will say as a read it can be a tad boring just listening to people say what they saw for page after page, especially if you try and read it straight through like me, but I will say that if you break it into chunks the book is a great collection of first-hand accounts.
          Now the two most interesting things about this book are, first despite spanning over a hundred years and several generations, it is remarkable how much all the eyewitnesses' descriptions are the same. Features included by witnesses over and over again include a lopping tail longer than its body, a round head with rounded ears, the creature emitting a horrifying women-like scream, a foul odor, piercing emerald green eyes and a complete lack of fear of man. More than one story involves these creatures' climbing on people’s roofs, trailers and even outhouses. They also have a tendency to be aggressive towards dogs.
          The second and really interesting idea that both the author and the eyewitnesses seem to share is their rather unusual idea of what the creatures are. Before we talk about what they have to say, let’s talk about the main theories and explanations put forward for these kind of creatures previously.
          One is that they are examples of a rare melanistic kind of Mountain Lion, (Puma concolor).This idea tends to come up because the only large cat known that comes close to the sizes reported for these kind of cats native to most of America is the Mountain Lion (Cougar, Puma, and Catamount etc.) But there is a major problem, in that this kind of cat is not known to be able to display the melanistic color phase. Sure some cats are a darker color than others, but they are all still the same basic shades. While they do have this gene in their DNA they don’t seem to be displaying it. True every hundred generations or so one melanistic Mountain Lion will be born naturally, but the odds of ever seeing it are more than one in a million. Given that hundreds of reported sightings come in across the America every year, in some places more often than reports of normal color phase Mountain Lions, I believe the idea that they are melanistic Mountain Lions is not a very plausible explanation for theses cats.
    The other popular theory is that these cats are escaped specimens of either of the two big cat species that do have a melanistic phase, the Leopard (Panthera pardus) or the Jaguar (Panthera onca). Leopards are not native to America, but many people keep exotic pets illegally and these creatures often escape or are released by careless owners when they become too much to handle. This does happen more often than most people realize.
 As for the Jaguar, they are not native to most of the parts of the country where these kind of cats are reported. But Jaguar fossils from as recent as 10,000 years ago have been found as far inland as Florida and Tennessee. And as recently as the 1890s they were found in states like California and New Mexico, and in the 1920s they were found in places like Texas and Arizona. In fact recent trail cameras in Arizona and Texas have shown that some of them are slowly making their way back into the USA. Whether there is a breeding population is another matter experts are still debating about. The same situation for escapees applies here as it does for the Leopard.
Another explanation is that these cats are a much less popularly known creature the Jaguarondi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi). These medium size cats are found mostly in Central and South America, but have been occasionally observed in Florida. They vary in color phase from grey, to tan, to all black. But the known species of this cat fall short in the size range for what people are seeing. More on this cat later. So if these are the traditional explanations, what is Alfred Willis and the dozens of eyewitnesses he has interviewed say these cats are?
They (mostly author Alfred Willis) argue that, not only are these cats real, but they represent a completely novel species of big cat all their own. That’s right, not melanistic Mountain Lions, not escaped or released Leopards and Jaguars, not even abnormal house cats (Felis catus).  
The author bases this argument on a few facts. One is that, as he correctly states, Mountain Lions don’t show a melanistic color phase and that a couple of freaks every so many generations couldn’t account for the hundreds of sightings every year. Second, some of the features like the emerald green eyes are not typical Mountain Lion characteristics, they tend to have more yellowish eyes.  Third, while he does acknowledge that releases and escapees do happen, they don’t really explain the decades (or centuries) old reports. Sure nowadays anyone with cash to burn and an internet connection can buy a baby leopard, but 20, 50, 100 years ago it was a very different situation.  


Finally many of the eyewitnesses, especially the old timers, would constantly reassure him in their interviews that they know what a Mountain Lion looks like, many said that Mountain Lions lived right alongside the Black Panthers, and that these were not the same creature. In fact they would only refer to the black cats as Panthers and not Mountain Lions or Pumas or any of the other common names for this cat, indicating these were a special separate animal.
I must say I’m very intrigued by this notion. The idea that these hundreds of black cat sightings are not escapees or releases, but a truly unknown animal is one that I haven’t heard a lot of other researchers talk too much about, a new species living right under everyone’s noises. It may seem a little farfetched, but it got me thinking about just what kind of cat it could be if real. Having thought it over, I would say if they were in fact a separate species, my money would be on a larger unknown species or sub-species of Jaguarundi.
Here is why. Looking at the numerous detailed and almost always consistent eyewitness reports over the past hundred or more years, most of the creature’s features match up perfectly with a Jaguarundi, but on an up-scaled size. The shape of the head, the shape of the tail and the fact that Jagaurundis can come in black all point to this conclusion. So much effort into trying to prove these creatures are real has been placed in the idea that they represent escapees of known creatures, how ironic to would be if the answer was a completely new kind of big cat living among the America wilderness, who was just naturally black all the time!
So at the end of the day what are we to make of all of this? Are some reports of big black cats just oversized domestics? Without a doubt. Are some escaped or released exotics? Yes. The recent killing of an escaped Leopard in Indiana, albeit a normal color phase one, proves it does happen.  But can all such cases be explained? I don’t think so. Until one is caught or killed the questions and theories will go on. If there is anything I would like you, the reader, to take away from this it is this. Never stop asking questions. Always listen to what the locals (especially the older generations) have to say. They won’t be around forever. And, as if you needed any more of a reason to, support your local researchers and book stores. They just may be the key to unlocking the secrets to the mysteries we are desperately trying to solve.  

Editor's note: Alfred Wills' book, mentioned above, does not appear to be still in print.  However, as I write, there is a copy listed as being available at the Royal Oak Bookshop, Fort Royal, Virginia.

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