I was a young officer working my first year on the job when I walked into a little country store in Avoyelles Parish near Bordelonville one day. Being new to the area and not knowing anyone, a lot of time was spent meeting local folks and learning my way around. An older fellow was in the store and he soon walked over and introduced himself. We exchanged a few pleasantries and before long I realized he was quite a talker.
He soon informed me about how well he knew the woods in this vicinity. He knew them “like the back of his hand” as a matter of fact and had intimate knowledge of all wildlife around here as well. He went on to let me know about the panther that resided deep in those woods, “a big black one with a loooong tail!” He had seen the cat with his own eyes, lying stretched out on a log and oblivious (of course) to the presence of this master of the wilderness. From the ease with which the story flowed I suspected this was not the first time it had been told.
Keeping a straight face, I thanked the man for the information and promised to keep an eye out for the deadly panther. Having grown up hunting, in a family of hunters and reading all the hunting tales and woods lore to be found on the shelves of the local library branch, I wasn’t too surprised to hear the story. In fact, the only surprising thing about it is the number of times I have since heard similar stories throughout my career. Talk to any wildlife officer and he or she will smile and tell you they have shared the same experience.
The legend or uh “tale” of the black panther (sorry couldn’t resist) is certainly not confined to Louisiana, as evidenced by conversations with wildlife officers throughout the southeastern United States. Why the stories persist is hard to say and why the cat is almost always black calls for even more speculation since Puma Concolor Coryi (Florida panther, an endangered subspecies of cougar) and Puma Concolor Couguar (North American cougar) are tan in color.
I suspect one reason the legend of the black panther lives on is misidentification of the all too common feral house cat. More than one photo of a house cat has been submitted to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as proof of a panther sighting. And I recall the experience of a fellow LDWF employee, named Bob, from years ago. He was out for a morning squirrel hunt and ran into another hunter. They struck up a conversation and the hunter told Bob a black panther had been living in these parts but he had killed the cat.
That got Bob’s attention and he asked the hunter what he had done with it. The hunter said he had had it taxidermy mounted and it was on display in his home if Bob wanted to see it. Bob certainly did and followed the hunter to his house. They walked into the living room and the hunter proudly pointed to the mounted “panther,” a large black house cat with claws and teeth bared in a most threatening pose. The taxidermist must have had a good laugh over that one.
Imagination can play tricks on people, particularly in situations where only a brief glimpse of a quickly moving animal or low light conditions leave our minds to fill in the details. It is very likely many of those cougar sightings result from a case of misidentification mixed with imagination. I recall one evening at dusk while sitting on the edge of a crop field. Looking down the edge of the field in near darkness, I saw a large cat coming toward me at a slow and careful pace. He was semi-stalking and scanning the ground ahead of him as he approached, probably hoping for a rat or mouse entering or exiting the field. He was a big fine bobcat and that became obvious when he turned and presented a side view including that distinctive short tail. But I could see where someone could easily have mistaken him for a cougar had he not been out in the open and viewed from the side.
So are there any cases in Louisiana where a reported cougar sighting turned out to be the real thing? Oh yes, yes indeed.
One morning in the early 90’s one of the dispatchers came into my office and told me she had just received a call from a man in the Hammond area. The man said his dogs had begun barking so he took a look out back. He was shocked to see a cougar raiding the garbage can. The surprised homeowner then loaded his shotgun with buckshot and shot the cat. He went on to say it was now laying dead out back. Not sure what to do, the dispatcher had come looking for me.
The homeowner was still on hold when the dispatcher and I returned to communications. He provided his address and we dispatched an agent to investigate. It wasn’t long before the agent called in and confirmed a very large and very dead cougar at that address. He then loaded the cougar in his truck and brought it to headquarters where wildlife biologists from the Division of Wildlife were waiting. The first thing they noted during the necropsy was the cat had been de-clawed. So this was not a wild cougar and before long we were able to determine the unfortunate cat had escaped while in transit from an exotic game ranch in Georgia in route to a similar facility in Texas.
The escape was not discovered until the transport vehicle stopped in Lafayette. But the game ranch folks had not bothered to notify anyone in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana about the lost cat. Information that may have been very important to us under different circumstances, don’t you think?
Much more recently in 2008, a hunter notified the Department he had a photo of what he strongly suspected was a cougar on one of his trail cameras. It was a cougar and this hunter had a solid reputation as an honest man and was not suspected of trying to pull off a hoax. The location was on the east side of the Red River near Coushatta. Large Carnivore Biologist Maria Davidson visited the sight and felt confident it was no hoax.
A couple of months later, a homeowner in a Bossier City suburban neighborhood was walking around the backyard on a Sunday afternoon. He looked up into a large pecan tree and spied a cougar lying on a limb high in the tree. He notified Bossier City police who in turn notified LDWF. Due to public safety concerns brought on by the location of the cougar it was shot and killed. The cougar was mounted and is now on display at LDWF Headquarters in Baton Rouge.
Test results indicated the cat had DNA consistent with that of cougars in New Mexico. Could the cougar have ranged all the way from New Mexico to Louisiana? No one knows but in 2011 a cougar was killed on Wilbur Cross Parkway near Milford, Connecticut. DNA examination concluded this was a wild cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota, 1,500 miles away. And in 2012, trail camera photos of a cougar were taken in October in Morgan County and November in Pike County, Illinois. Later in November, Illinois DNR personnel shot and killed what is believed to be the same cougar near Morrison, Illinois in Whiteside County.
Good friend and fellow retired wildlife officer Rick Pallister of Buffalo, Wyoming and I have had some lengthy conversations about carnivores in general and cougars in particular since the stories of sightings are so persistent in Louisiana. Living and working in a state with plenty of cougars has given Rick lots of experience in such matters and I have never forgotten one of his observations.
Rick pointed out that cougars are very secretive animals. Rarely are they seen and many people live their entire lives in Wyoming without ever spotting a cougar. But cougar sign such as tracks, scat and remains of kills are very evident, particularly where domestic livestock such as sheep are preyed upon. Cougars are hunted and successfully taken in Wyoming during open season and sometimes illegally killed in close season. While in Louisiana we have frequent claims of sightings but seldom any hard evidence in the form of tracks, kills or other sign.
So yes, on rare occasions we have found cougars in Louisiana, and in the Bossier City case how it got here remains a mystery. In a couple of other incidents strong evidence of the presence of a cougar was discovered but no actual sighting of the cat was ever reported.
Some experts theorize that cougars are expanding their range eastward in response to abundant whitetail deer and feral hog populations. Cougars could be ranging into Louisiana from Texas. But they won’t be easily seen and I wager if they are, they will be tan in color.
That’s worth remembering the next time the local master of the wilderness is telling you about the longed-tailed black panther he saw in his neck of the Louisiana woods.