Written by: Brad Howard
Have you seen this picture in an email or on Facebook lately? We have! This photo has been passed around to numerous folks over the last month with claims that it has been taken in various locations across North Carolina.
More recently, some attention was given to a few reports of “a black panther” in Stokes County. There were no photographs or other verifiable evidence to support those reports. While very rare, jaguars, leopards, the jaguarundi and even bobcats can have black coats but there has never been a documented occurrence of a melanistic phase (black) cougar in North America.
So, any report of a “black panther” or a “large black cat” is most likely mistaken identity since only the above-mentioned cats have a black phase and only one of those cats is native, the bobcat. The black phase in bobcats is extraordinarily rare. Determining if it were a bobcat would not be that hard. While not the norm, bobcats can exceed 40 lbs. in North Carolina, which is much larger than a lot of people think they can be!
The truth is the photo that is being spread around is of a rare melanistic phase leopard that is held in captivity in South Africa. If you would like to read about the search for the black leopard and the person who owns this particular cat follow this link “http://showme.co.za/nelspruit/news/chasing-mpumalangas-black-leopard/.
Reports of large cats across North Carolina are quite common but no physical evidence exists to confirm any of these reports and most can be attributed to mistaken identity and of course, the potential of someone’s illegal exotic pet escaping does exist. Once native to North Carolina, the eastern cougar has not been documented in more than 100 years. Several years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. So the native big cat that once roamed North Carolina’s fields and forests is no more.
There is no “remnant” population of big cats that has somehow been surviving in the mountains or swamps undetected for 100 years, that just isn’t really genetically possible. Cats are not that long lived and a population can’t exist without some form of genetic exchange. Genetic exchange means new unrelated cats would have to enter the population from somewhere. If new cats were entering the population then, at some point in time over the last 100 years, a cat would have been hit by a car, shot by someone or otherwise documented coming into the state. So, while the stories are fun and the legends are as old as our state, the legendary cat of the mountains and the swamps is just that, a legend.
However, the Florida panther and the western cougar are quite real. The Florida panther is still endangered and while the range of the Florida panther is basically south Florida, these cats do at times wander north. A Florida panther was shot by a hunter in Troup County, GA., in 2008. Troup County is just southwest of Atlanta so these cats, especially young males can travel quite a distance. Incidentally, the Florida Panther is still listed as an endangered species and the hunter was charged and convicted in federal court.
Western cougars, also commonly known as mountain lions, panthers, painters, pumas, or catamounts depending on where you are from are doing quite well across their range and range expansion continues to occur. Actual wild cougars have been documented in several states where they have also been missing for many years, such as Kansas and Missouri. One adventurous cougar even found its way to Connecticut from the Dakotas several years ago. Incidentally, this traveling cat was actually positively identified in multiple states as it passed through either by photo, hair analysis or scat before it was finally struck and killed by a vehicle in Connecticut.
While cougars are expanding their range, North Carolina is still quite a distance from the closest breeding population of cougars and the probability that a dispersing cat would leave occupied range and make its way to North Carolina without being detected in a neighboring state isn’t very high.
Will they return to the state one day?
Possibly so but it could be quite some time before they get here. With the number of peopleand trail cameras across the landscape in North Carolina these days we feelconfident that should a wandering male find its way to our state we will getsome evidence pretty quick.
Until then, Commission biologists remain patient for proof that a wild cougar has made its way to our state. We will probably see a number of hoaxes, perhaps an escaped exotic pet or two and who knows what else before that time?
On a final note, people always ask “if they don’t exist” is it ok if we shoot them? Well, nobody ever said that big cats “don’t exist.” The position remains that “no documented evidence exists to prove that a 'wild’ cougar is here.” There have been documented occurrences of escaped exotic pets on several occasions over the last few decades. People keep all sorts of things as pets, some legal some illegal. These animals do, from time to time, escape from their owners and show up in strange places.
So, can I shoot it?
Why would you want to? If it truly is a wild cat that has made its way to North Carolina why would the first thought be to shoot it? Let’s back up. North Carolina law allows any person at any time to shoot a wild animal that presents a direct threat for bodily harm. So, if the cat was attacking, you can by law shoot the cat. If a cougar is killed under threatening circumstances or accidentally, such as in a collision with a vehicle, that person should note the location of the carcass and notify the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at 1-800-662-7137.
If the cat is just walking by your deer stand and it appears to be a cougar you should not shoot it.
It could be an escaped pet or it could in fact be an actual wild cougar that has found its way to North Carolina from one of the established population, either from Florida or from the upper Midwest! If it were in fact a wild cat then it is a nongame animal and there is no open season for taking cougar. Since we have stated several times that cougars do not have a melanistic (black) phase then by all means if you see a “black panther” you are not prohibited by law from shooting it but be careful, you might be shooting someone’s house cat, dog, exotic pet or other domestic animal that you thought was a black panther.
For now, we remind everyone to be skeptical of those emails and Facebook posts that claim a picture was taken in this place or that. We always recommend a little Internet searching, most of the time you will find that same picture in numerous places across the World Wide Web!
By Brad Howard,
Certified Wildlife Biologist®
Private Lands Program Coordinator,
Division of Wildlife Management