It was just another day for Don Cook and Steve Parrish, scientists at the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant Biology Lab near Southport. They were in a company truck, returning from the marina with marine samples, when suddenly they encountered something totally unexpected. From the dense forest ahead, a huge cat sped from the edge of the woods and strode across the road in front of their truck.
“It was a big, tanned cat with a long tail, crouching like he was stalking, crossing the road from left to right just in front of us,” says Cook. “I distinctly remember seeing the muscles in his shoulder ripple as he bounded towards the plant’s outflow channel. Saw a lot of bobcats, deer, bears, and coyotes, but what we saw that afternoon was a cougar.
They’re called panthers, pumas, painters, and cougars depending on who you talk to, and they’re extinct in North Carolina. But wait, are they really gone? Not according to a number of North Carolina outdoor veterans, like Cook and Parrish, who report seeing the big cats each year.
Wildlife biologists say these reports can be traced to mistaken identity – someone may have seen a large bobcat. Just a minute, say the people who have seen a cougar. Unlike our native bobcats who weigh an average of 20 pounds and have short “cut” tails, adult cougars are unmistakably large cats about 6 feet long and weighing up to 200 pounds. Outdoor enthusiasts like Cook say that it would be impossible to mistake a panther for a bobcat or other animal, because its tail and elongated body give it a drastically different appearance.
In his book Panthers of the coastal plains, published in 1994, Charles R. “Buster” Humphries recorded 167 sightings of panthers within a 40 mile radius of Wilmington. Could 167 people all be wrong?
Still, biologists say sightings of the eastern cougar, known locally as the Carolina cougar, have not been officially documented for over 100 years. As a result, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared it extinct. And so, the native big cat that once roamed North Carolina is gone, is it? Well, not exactly.
It is true that while reports of large cats in North Carolina are common every year, there is little physical evidence to confirm most of the testimonies.
That all changed a few years ago when Wilmington dentist, oral surgeon and seasoned outdoor enthusiast Dr Ben Smith Sr. not only saw a cougar on his farm in a remote area of Leland near the Cape River. Fear, but then made an impression of his pug mark (in this case, his hind paw print) to prove that what he saw was real. For the first time, there was credible and reliable physical evidence that at least one big cat was back.
How do skeptical biologists explain the pug? They can not. What they’re saying is that there can’t be any survivors of the original Carolina Cougar, but they at least buy into the idea that big cats could roam North Carolina from a neighboring state.
As of September 2015, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has listed several cougar sightings on its website. Each is checked and confirmed with a trail camera photo.
In Virginia, there have been so many cougar sightings that citizens launched a research site, Cougar Quest Virginia, to document the sightings with sightings, research and photos. The published results led them to believe that cougars live in and pass through Virginia and neighboring states.
In a recent report, Dr. Tom Horton, a resident and historian of South Carolina, as he drove along US 341 an hour before sunset near the intersection of Winterhaven Road, a mile to the east of Kershaw, saw what he described as a big cat cross the road. The head was round and large, the color was mottled brown, and the tail was long and very thick. A panther, no doubt.
The meeting of Horton is far from rare. From Blacksburg to McClellanville, panther sightings are so common that the internet has become a bulletin board for reports of South Carolina panthers, some with accompanying photos.
It’s 130 miles from McClellanville to the Leland site where Smith threw the pug – much of that route through the notoriously impenetrable green swamp, beloved of all things wild. A cougar might make this trip before lunch.
As a result of so many observations, and in light of recent research, wildlife biologists now agree that it is possible, through what they call genetic exchange, that a new strain of big cats unrelated to the extinct Carolina Cougar could enter the state from elsewhere. . The observations support the theory, and each has three compelling similarities: a large cat, a tawny brown color, and a long tail. These are not descriptions that fit a bobcat, wild pig, or bear.
It certainly makes sense that if our neighboring states have panthers, then surely we could have them here. But if we do, why weren’t we photographed, trapped, killed on a North Carolina highway, or shot by a hunter?
There are good reasons. On the one hand, cougars are endangered and protected by the federal government. Therefore, if a hunter shoots one down and is apprehended, he could face a fine of $ 10,000 and other penalties, including jail time. No reasonable hunter would take this chance.
Cougars are stealthy, shy, lonely, and cautious hunters rarely seen by humans, even where they are known to exist, such as in the Everglades swamps of Florida where they thrive. Do we have similar swamps?
Home to every creepy, creepy, and murderous creature imaginable, three of the darkest, most dangerous, and fearsome swamps in all of the south can be found along the North Carolina Coastal Plain – the Great Dismal Swamp, Angola Bay and the Green Swamp – each akin to the Everglades and the perfect panther haunts. The phenomenal resurgence in these places of the white-tailed deer, a cougar’s favorite prey, makes the habitat ideal.
Angola, in Pender and Duplin counties, covers 34,000 acres, most of it virtually inaccessible and a part so desolate inland that it has not been seen by man for a century. All signs of civilization literally disappear in such places, much to the preference of a panther.
Seasoned deer and bear hunters Kit Taylor, Charles Wells and Tripp Pippin report seeing a large cat on the edge of Angola as they check the roads during a winter ice storm.
“It was late in deer season and we were checking out any downed trees that might have blocked our access roads,” says Taylor. “Suddenly this big cat with a long tail jumped out of the forest in the middle of the road, lay down and with a leap, crossed the road and into the wall of the adjacent forest. We all three shouted “cougar” at the same time. Cougars may well live quietly in Angola, where deer, their favorite prey, abound. It’s such a secret and secluded place that most hunters and loggers may never see a cougar… but we did! We have seen bears, bobcats, and coyotes there for many years, and we don’t confuse them with a cougar. What we saw was a cougar, simple and straightforward, probably 100 pounds, fawn brown with a long tail. “
Russ Lane, another North Carolina native, woodland veteran and hunter, says he saw a cougar while hunting a deer in Goshen Swamp in Duplin County.
“I was hunting from a deer farm in Goshen, and a panther came out 125 meters and stayed in my line of sight for several minutes, chasing nose to the ground,” he says. “He was brown, maybe four feet long, and seemed to weigh at least 125 pounds. I clearly saw a dark tip on his tail. Later that day, I spoke to members of a local hunting club who use dogs to hunt game in impassable swampy areas. They said they saw panthers in both Goshen and Angola. You may believe it or not, but they are here with us.
Well adapted to marsh life, the cougar is an excellent hunter in all weather conditions. An expert swimmer and skilled climber, he has agility, persistence, a rather dark set of fangs in the front and back, and they can sprint up to 50mph! Pumas hunt by sight and smell and prefer deer, but they will eat mice, game birds, fish, slugs, grasshoppers, skunks, raccoons, foxes, goats, and horses. Interspersed with deep throaty growls and shrill whistles, they emit a terrifying cry much like the cry of our native barn owl.
Do the regularity of sightings, documented pug marks, and personal encounters confirm the cougar’s return to eastern North Carolina? Biologists say the panther is gone for good, but a growing group of convincing locals say otherwise, and the debate continues.
With all the evidence, it’s easy to believe the cougar has come to visit our southern haunts again. After all, it seems like the big cats are literally at home in the deep forests, bays and swamps of our coastal plain, which contain all of their needs and so few of humans.
So the next time you escape to a beautiful rural area for some peaceful relaxation, and the nearby woods you will hear the spooky cry of a barn owl, relax. It’s probably just a panther.