Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Black puzzler: Tennesseeans continue to see a big cat (via Chad Arment)

Black puzzler: Tennesseeans continue to see a big cat that science says doesn't exist; but why?

Bryan Brasher
Memphis Commercial Appeal

For the past 13 years, Hardeman County hunter Earl Hanners has been telling a story that begins almost like a bachelor-party tale from the shimmering city of Las Vegas.

He starts by insisting, "I wasn't drunk. I wasn't on drugs. I wasn't hung over."

Then he recounts the moment he saw the strangest critter he's ever seen in the wild.

"I was deer hunting on the back side of a huge green field during the Tennessee bow season," Hanners said. "And at the far edge of the field, I saw a jet-black animal that was bigger than a bobcat and bigger than a coyote with a tail that looked like it was 3 feet long.

"I've thought about it and thought about it through the years, and there's just no doubt in my mind it was a black panther."

It's a great story, but with one obvious glaring flaw.

Science says there's no such thing as a black panther.

So-called "panther" sightings have become so common across the Mid-South that conservation officials barely raise an eyebrow over them anymore unless the caller has some type of photographic evidence -- and even when they do, the evidence is rarely compelling enough to warrant an actual investigation.

The sightings can usually be explained away very easily.

The usual stuff

People who don't spend a lot of time in the woods often mistake common, harmless bobcats for a larger, more menacing creature.

Experienced woodsmen know bobcats are grayish brown with random black spots. But in low-light conditions, it's easy for someone with limited outdoors experience to mistake them as solid black.

Coyotes -- another relatively harmless creature that is common across the Mid-South -- are also sometimes mistaken for large predators.

So are simple everyday black house cats.

"At one point, we were actually asking people to shoot these 'panthers' if they saw one so we could actually examine a carcass," said Alan Peterson of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "But we stopped that because a couple of big house cats get shot. Now we just ask for a good picture."

Peterson used to keep a map in his office filled with color-coded push pens. Each pen represented a different type of reported unusual sighting across West Tennessee.

At one point, the pens representing black panthers outnumbered all of the other pens combined.

That's strange for an animal that supposedly doesn't exist -- and makes one wonder what strange black felines might be wandering the Mid-South landscape.

What could it be?
Though there's no documented critter known officially as a "black panther," several other large species of cats sometimes appear dark black due to a condition known as melanism.

In Latin America, melanistic jaguars are sometimes referred to incorrectly as black panthers, and melanistic leopards sometimes wear the misplaced title in Africa and Asia. There have been scattered reports of melanistic mountain lions for years in North America, but the reports have never been verified.

Some believe those cats in their melanistic state could be responsible for the sightings across the Mid-South. But conservation officials say it's hard to imagine that such animals could thrive in our region without lots of people gathering rock-solid proof.

"An animal like that has to eat to survive," said Ty Inmon, a West Tennessee conservation officer who has traveled the country hunting a variety of big-game species. "If we had a big population of large cats, you'd have livestock disappearing all over the place, and they'd do some serious damage to the deer herd. You'd have pets disappearing out of people's yards, and somebody would hit one with a car or snap a good picture.

"It would be hard for them to stay hidden for very long."

Mid-South's Bigfoot?
Beyond mistaken identity and the unexpected appearance of animals common to another part of the globe, some believe there is a third possible explanation for all of the black panther sightings.

Several web sites, including cryptomundo.com and weirld.com, think the black panther could be a cryptid -- a species of animal that has yet to be documented by science.

But as much as biologists would like to believe there's an unknown critter roaming local woods, they're tempering their excitement until they have tangible proof.

"It would be one of the greater stories of my lifetime," Peterson said. "And we certainly don't want to discourage people from reporting strange sightings.

"But at this point, we've had so many false sightings reported that we'll need to see some solid evidence before we get too terribly excited about one."


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