Lots of children are scared of the dark, frightened of the boogey man that will surely slip out of the closet or out from under the bed as soon as Mom or Dad turns out the light each night. Most kids “personalize” their boogey man, transforming this generic figure into something more specific. The creature that often dominated my nighttime fears was a black panther. I imagined the large cat that prowled in the shadows at the corners of my room to be dark as pitch and as long as my bed. And thanks to his inky black coat, I wouldn’t be able to see him until he was right on me, his glowing yellow eyes floating in the darkness only inches from mine.
I watched my fair share of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” growing up, but I’ll bet my nightmare was built at least in part on the stories I’d heard about vicious black panthers from both sides of my family.
My grandmother and later my mom would tell me about the day my great, great grandmother and a few other ladies were at the edge of a river in central Mississippi dyeing yarn when they heard something in the woods. They heard a loud cry that sounded like a woman screaming, and they knew it was a black panther, so they dropped their work and ran to the nearest structure. Once they were inside, the panther jumped on the roof and was clawing its way in until the men folk arrived and fired their guns, driving the cat away. The story scared me, thinking about the women running for their lives, a huge animal, hell-bent on eating them, right on their heels. But the fright also gave me a thrill, and I’d ask to hear the story again.
My dad’s story was even better, since it was firsthand. My arm hairs would stand on end as he recounted his long walk down a logging road when he was just a boy. He and a friend had been out hunting rabbits along a river bottom in Mississippi near the Alabama state line, but as it got dark and they headed home, something began hunting them. They heard a scream off to their right—human-like, but definitely not human. Then it was on their left, then behind them, then just a bit in front. They couldn’t see anything, but from what they could hear, something big was circling them. Once they could see the house at the end of the road, both boys took off running and never looked back.
Similar stories circulate today and are set in my home state of Alabama; there have been numerous reports of large, black cat sightings. A friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless) swears he saw what he called a black panther just a few years ago when he was hunting. “It was dusk, and it was walking on the edge of the woods in front of me, about 200 yards away,” he said. “It was big.” And he’d heard stories from other hunters about a black panther in that area.
A quick internet search yields more reports from Alabama, including one in Talladega in 2003 when five black panthers were supposedly seen in a neighborhood, and even a grainy video supposedly showing a large, black cat walking across a field. But for all the eyewitness testimony in this case, you’d be hard pressed to find a wildlife biologist (the experts on what’s living and lurking in our state) who takes any of these stories very seriously.
For one thing, black panthers do not exist at all. That’s according to a biologist that works for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Panther is just another name used for cougars, and they are never black. There is a melanistic phase of jaguars and leopards, but neither of those animals live in the United States.
Still, there are a number of black panther sighting reports filed each year, so are these folks crazy or just plain lying? They’re probably simply mistaken. Maybe they saw a black dog with short, tipped ears, or even a large domestic black cat. It’s all about perspective. When we see things at a distance and don’t have a point of reference for scale, our eyes can trick us when it comes to determining size. (And then there are the sightings fueled by a night of indulging in adult beverages.)
But what about the reports claiming the presence of large cats that are not black, animals with descriptions much closer to the Eastern cougar (also called puma and mountain lion), which did, at one time, roam around the Southeast and Alabama? These stories have a bit more credibility, but wildlife biologists still maintain that there probably aren’t any cougars left in the wild in Alabama. The last verified cougar in the state was killed in St. Clair County more than fifty years ago. Maybe one wanders across the border from south Florida or Louisiana, because they do travel long distances. There are also a few Western cougars kept as “pets,” and one of those could escape. So it’s not impossible that someone sees a cougar, but experts think it is unlikely.
There are two other possible culprits leading people to believe they’ve spotted an elusive (and non-existent) black panther. One is the black bear. We do have a stable population of black bears in south Alabama, and bear sightings in other parts of the state are very possible. There have been several documented sightings near Anniston (with clear photos) in the northeast part of Alabama.
The other is a little more interesting. The jaguarundi is a medium-sized brownish-gray cat from Central and South America that has been documented in Texas and Arizona. Its size and dark color make it a good candidate for black panther sightings. According to some, there may be a few of these wandering around southern areas of our state, as there have been some unconfirmed sightings in the last few years.
So, what did my dad see? He never actually saw anything, and when he retold me the story for this article, he never identified the animal as black; I probably added that detail as a child to make his story even eerier when I shared it to spook my friends. There supposedly aren’t any cougars left in Mississippi today either, but considering it was over fifty years ago, and that the local game warden found tracks too big for a bobcat in the same area after some cows were killed, there’s a decent chance my dad was being stalked by a cougar. As for my great, great grandmother and her companions, the adjective “black” may have been added to their story in its countless retellings, and since it was so long ago, when there may have been viable populations of cougars in areas of the South, there could be some truth to it as well.
But why do these stories persist now? Maybe because we want to believe them. Some, like mine, that may have been closer to reality when they happened, have been handed down through the generations without taking into account the changes that have taken place in the time that has passed. Today, the stories of contemporary sightings, often cases of mistaken identity, spread like a brush fire, the same way stories of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster do.
The aforementioned mass sighting in Talladega turned out to be only one, decidedly not black, bobcat. But like all the best tall tales, this report became rumor and was creatively elaborated upon by each mouth it came out of.
It seems many of us are fascinated by the unexplained, and the idea of a secretive animal fits the bill perfectly. Yet even this can, perhaps, be explained. In an age where scientists can rationalize and reveal so much of what was previously unknown in our world, maybe we’re looking for a legend to hold onto, something to keep us wondering, something that remains mysterious on the fringes of myth and reality.