Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Panther, in Alabama?

One of the worst examples of journalism I've seen in a long time is this story from WHNT (a Huntsville TV station) in which the overly credulous reporter writes, "A Marshall County man is recovering after being attacked by a panther." The Associated Press has since picked up the story, which is unfortunate, but they at least show a smidgen of skepticism with "An Alabama man says he's recovering after being attacked by a panther near his Marshall County home." And of course it was a black panther, which is always the tip-off that it wasn't some escaped western cougar or wandering Florida panther, like this one that turned up in Georgia a couple of years ago. The article is accompanied by a photo, stamped March 2006, of a cat of some sort walking away, but there is no mention of where it was taken or if it is supposed to be the animal or one like it.

Not having a perspective from a wildlife biologist is a glaring omission. The only background information provided is the claim by unnamed locals that "panthers" have been seen in the area for years and that "they tend to stay around the bluff areas leading down into the cove, but do come out looking for food."

The story sets off my baloney detector in several ways. First off, there are no black panthers in Alabama. At least not outside of zoos. The only black panthers are melanistic jaguars or leopards, neither of which are likely to be encountered in Greenbrier Cove. There is only the remotest chance that an escaped black panther is on the loose anywhere in the whole Southeast at this moment. The details of the incident strike me as odd, as well: If a big cat is chewing on you, do you think you'd be able to get a knife out of your pocket, open it, and stab the animal? Maybe. Also, if this was a big cat, wouldn't it be more likely to pounce on the guy's dog (which he was walking) and not him? Probably.

Good luck telling country folk that there are no black panthers running around. It's ingrained in the folklore. Biologist Frank Allen of ADCNR does a good job of explaining it here. More here.

I don't know what bit this guy, but it wasn't a panther. If only he hadn't said it was black, I might be willing to cut him some slack. [HE MAY NOT HAVE CLAIMED THIS--SEE UPDATE BELOW]

12/7/10 UPDATE: More has come to light, including this video interview with the victim. It appears that the cat was NOT black as the original WHNT reporter said. I now think the guy might actually have been clawed by an escaped pet. It didn’t attack so much as it clawed him when he kicked at it. Not the kind of aggression you’d expect from a truly wild creature, but it is what you might get from a hungry escaped pet who is looking for a handout and might even have been “set free” by its previous owner due to behavioral problems. Emmett's comment below is well taken. He works with wild Florida panthers each winter in Florida's Big Cypress Preserve, and knows a thing or two about their behavior.]

(I also removed the "A Tiger, in Africa?" Monty Python YouTube clip, but here's the link)