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)


David Steen said...

Unreal! How did you fight off the black panther you took pictures of?

Emmett said...

I took a look at the local news report on the subject and there was no mention of the animal "biting" Mr. Harmes. Instead he indicates.."I kicked at him and he got my leg. He just swatted my leg. It went through my coveralls." During this narative he is shown exhibiting 4 parallel slices in his clothing. Each is about 1 inch or so in length. I also find it interesting that Harmes said the following: "Whenever he started to take another step I kicked at him and he got my leg." It sounds like Harmes did the provoking here. In fact, he makes no mention of the cat lunging, biting, attacking, or doing anything that I would consider an unprovoked attack. This is indeed very strange behavior for a supposed wild cat.

John said...

There have been two reports of a Cougar (Puma concolor) I know of here in Franklin county, AL. One report 1.2 miles north of me about two years ago, and one 5.88 miles northwest of me by another man this year. We have many large buffs in the area. Also, I have personally taken a picture of what I'm highly sure to be a Cougar track in our woods (about 2 or 3 years ago). I measured the track with a ruler and it was 4 inches wide with a highly curved claw mark in the soft sand by a stream (probably protracted out in the low soft sand for traction).

I know you don't believe in the black cats, and I'm a little skeptical myself as well, but how many have reported this, it's got to be something: My sisters friend said he saw a large black cat kill a Guineafowl next to his house several years ago in Marion county. Also my mother (a teacher) said one of her students saw a large black cat a few years ago at her house).
One more black cat was seen by a man 2.4 miles NW of me probably like 7 years ago or so, it was clawing a tree behind his house. He told my uncle (who had two young kids then) to keep watch of his kids while there out playing because they live only 230 yards from where he saw the large cat.

All these reports are either near Bear Creek, or right above the pottsville rock bluff formations.


Another rare sight I've seen is a cinnamon colored American black bear (Ursus americanus) trotting away from me in the Bank Bankhead National Forest (When I went hiking one day about a year ago), it had shaggy fur (like any black bear picture you would see, except cinnamon colored). It was about 40 or 50 yards away. It looked about 2 to 2.5 feet in shoulder height. (Note for everybody: Despite their name, black bears can have a wide color variation in some individuals. Individual coat colors can range from blond, cinnamon, or light brown to dark chocolate brown or to jet black)
There was a baby black bear cub found in the Bankhead National Forest about 2 or 3 years ago (they found it in a bathroom, I think it was injured) this was on the front page of our local paper with a picture.

Other unique wild creatures I've seen through the years are: Fox, Possum, lots of Nine-banded Armadillos, Raccoon, chipmunks, groundhog, beaver, rabbits, lots of deer, Southern flying squirrel, we have lots of coyote packs below the bluffs that howl many nights (I have a picture of one coyote that was barking at our dog from 130 yards away (our dog hid behind house), then I went out and clapped it off, 100% honest) also gray rat snakes, Great horned owl, eastern screech owl, barn owl, American Woodcock, Red tailed hawk, Great Blue Heron, bald eagle very high soring over (probably came from the TN river or cedar creek lake) , geese flying over.
These are just some of the thinks I can think off the top of my head, you can tell I like nature.

Mark Bailey said...

Thanks for an interesting comment. I know a little about that Franklin County terrain, and if there are any big cats running around in Alabama, that would be a good place for them to go mostly undetected. True, I don't believe in black panthers (in Alabama), but I didn't say I don't believe in black CATS of a non-housecat variety. There have been a number of reports of jaguarundis in Alabama, and while I'm skeptical even of these, I would not rule out the possibility. I recently created a blog addressing that: Check it out.

Mark Bailey said...

(Dave's comment is referencing the black cat photos on the jaguarundi blog.) The worst that animal might do is to try to get in my lap.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I have a neighbor who came face to face with a big, black cat in her driveway early one morning last year. This big cat leaped over a pasture fence.She described it as a very large black cat with a long tail. She lives on Hwy. 243 just over into Winston Co. Another woman, coming home from Florence, AL. on Hwy. 243, witnessed a big black cat jumping across the highway. This is near where Hwy. 243 and Co. Rd. 69 intersect. Several people in the Quarter Creek area of Bear Creek have seen and heard a big black cat. And I, about 30 years ago, witnessed seeing one in the Bankhead Forest. I was riding in a jeep with a friend. When we rounded a curve, the, I call it a panther, was in the road.It was jet black and very large. No doubt what I saw. I will never forget the way it looked at us. It didn't run off, but just walked off the road. Never mind that. We got out of there.I know what the officals say, but I am not mistaken in what I saw. The people I have just described to you are honest, credible folks. They have no reason to relate these events unless they are sure of what they saw.I once didn't believe these animals existed, but seeing is believing.

Mobile, Alabama said...

May 2009, I saw a black jaguar run in front of my car, then down the road. It stopped and stared at me, as I had stopped the car to watch it. It was approx 20 feet from my car. Head much larger than a puma. And the cat was heavier in body structure. Beautiful creature. Wish I could allay your doubts, but I cannot. When you see one for yourself, then you will know. I won't go in the woods without the dogs and a sidearm now. As beautiful as it was, I would not want to come up on it in the woods, unarmed. The head was just huge. Mobile,Alabama.