BLACK PANTHERS – FACT OR FICTION?

If you are a firm believer in the presence of “black panthers” as a species of wildlife in the woods of the Magnolia State you may not like this post.

The animal historically called panther in the South and Eastern United States is the same creature called mountain lion or cougar or puma in other parts of the U. S. and North and South America, and it is the only large (up to around 200 pounds), long-tailed cat to have lived in Mississippi in historic times. Once taxonomically classified as Felis concolor, the big cat now bears the scientific name, Puma concolor.

There is no question but that the panther historically lived in Mississippi – the outdoor magazines of the 1800s and early 1900s are full of stories of Mississippi panthers. Wildlife biologists in Mississippi, though, will tell you that there has been no reliable evidence of a panther of any color in Mississippi for decades, meaning there has been no reliable sign in the form of hair, tracks, or verifiable photographs produced in that time. Neither has there been, as is the case with bears, any instance of a road-killed or illegally shot panther in the state in recent years. [Note: notwithstanding professional opinions of scientists, the writer has heard too many reports of panther sightings in Mississippi from reliable individuals to believe they are all mistaken].

As for the panther coming in the color black, well, to put it bluntly, there is no such animal native to the United States. The wildlife guidebooks are consistent in their descriptions of the color of the cougar/panther. Typical of such works is Big Game of North America: Ecology and Management, published by the Wildlife Management Institute, a conservation group that has been around since 1911. According to that reference, “[t]he color of adult mountain lions [also known as panthers] varies in solid but graded tones of yellow, brown, red and gray.”

Neither will you find references to “black panthers” in the old hunting literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That term, in reference to a species of animal supposed to live or to have lived in Mississippi, seems to be of relatively modern origin. Probably it has something to do with the jungle serials at movie theaters and on television in the 1940s and 50s, like Ramar of the Jungle, that often featured black leopards, called “panthers.” Possibly those movie panthers were conflated in the minds of many with the stories of panthers in the woods of the South, with the result that the southern panther became a “black panther.”

It is simply beyond dispute that the scientific and historical sources are in agreement: there is no verifiable record of any black or melanistic cougar being killed or captured anywhere.

So what did folk who say they saw a black panther see? In many cases they saw black house cats at a distance – examples of such can be seen on Youtube. It is also possible that someone has seen a black bobcat – they are rare – only about 14 on record in the U. S. – but they do exist. It is also possible that someone saw a gray cougar or dark bobcat in low light and it looked black, just as dark phase deer may look almost black in the very late afternoon or early morning. While it is not widely known, wildlife officials say that there are many exotic cats such as lions and tigers and leopards owned by private parties in Mississippi. There is a remote – emphasis on remote –possibility someone reporting a “black panther” has seen a melanistic leopard or jaguar – those cats do come in a black phase – that escaped from its cage.

Now, there is always a first time for everything. Maybe melanistic cougars have been seen by all the folk who say they have seen black panthers. But which is more likely: that the many persons reporting black panthers are actually seeing a color phase of the cougar that has never before been documented with physical evidence – or that they were mistaken as to what they saw?

Note: there will be more to come on the panthers in Mississippi Matters. In the meantime, we would love to see any evidence of panthers, black or otherwise, in Mississippi anyone has. Keep us posted.

James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com. Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty

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