Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Panther in Western Albemarle?
© Marlene A. Condon
I walk around my neighborhood almost every day, and I’ve gotten to know neighbors who also exercise on a regular basis.
One day last June, Daisy—a runner—stopped to inform me excitedly that she had recently seen a panther in the area! What she described surely sounded like a cougar (Puma concolor), except that she said it was black, and our native big cat is a tawny color. In fact, no all-black cougar has ever been documented in the United States, even though folklore includes stories of panthers in our country.
The term “panther” more accurately describes jaguars and leopards, melanistic (all-black) large cats that are completely different species. Neither of these animals is native to our area, so I didn’t know what to make of Daisy’s report.
In our brief conversations along the road we share, she’s always made comments to me that illustrate she has quite an interest in wildlife and understands the important role that wildlife plays in our own existence. I had no reason to doubt her report of seeing an all-black large cat.
That said, cougars were extirpated from the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States over 100 years ago. Officially (i.e., according to the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries), there are no wild cougars in Virginia. State biologists insist that if someone were to see a cougar, the animal would have to have been one that had been kept as a pet (I’ll never understand how this could be allowed) and which has been set free illegally.
Most folks scoff at the idea that a cougar, even a pet one, could be seen in Albemarle County. It sounds like the stuff of myth, and yet I know first-hand that there has been at least one of these large cats wandering around my local area.
On the morning of February 2, 2007, I convinced my husband to walk with me in the pre-dawn darkness. I wanted to get my day started earlier than usual, but I didn’t feel comfortable walking the roads alone when it was pitch-black out.
As we were heading back home at what I figured was about 6:40 a.m., it was barely light enough to see where we were going. We were approaching a wildlife trail (a pathway used often by wildlife and thus obvious by flattened plants along it) when I noticed a large animal crossing the road ahead of us.
All I could see was a silhouette that was moving with a definite cat-like gait across the road. My first thought was that it was a bobcat, an animal that is supposedly common in our area, but which is rarely seen.
I was stunned when the animal reached the roadway right in front of us and I could clearly see its long body followed by a very long tail, not a short (“bobbed”) tail of a bobcat!
I asked my husband if he saw the animal just as it reached the side of the road we were on. He hadn’t seen it crossing the road, as I had. He only saw it when it was in front of us and jumped onto the bank leading down to the river. Having grown up with cats as I had, he recognized the cat-like movement of the animal but couldn’t make out any details in the brief moment he was aware of its presence.
If only I’d had my camera with me! I wouldn’t have been able to document the cat itself, but I could have documented its paw prints on the roadway.
At first we were so astonished that we just kept walking and talking about what we’d just seen. But then I regained my senses and said we should return to look for prints. The animal had, indeed, left behind perfectly identifiable tracks of a cougar.
I contacted the property owner of the wildlife trail to ask if his neighbor, a National Geographic photographer, could set up a camera along the trail to possibly catch a glimpse of the big cat. But perhaps the thought of a cougar in Albemarle County sounded preposterous to the photographer. The landowner recently told me he didn’t think a camera had ever been set up.
Of course, I can remember when the idea of coyotes in the county seemed far-fetched, too. Now the poor things are shot by people whose fears of them arise from a lack of knowledge of these animals.
Now folks might think that I must have been mistaken. But Daisy had witnesses to her panther sighting!
She told me a runner had come by so she stopped him to ask what kind of animal was in the field. He replied, “A panther,” and they both “just gawked and stood there.” Then two women came by in a vehicle and Daisy stopped them too. They also agreed they were all looking at a panther!
Daisy didn’t know the names of any of the witnesses to her sighting, but a friend of mine—who possesses a keen interest in cougar sightings after spotting one himself—had heard about the panther observation. He managed to put me in touch with the runner Daisy had stopped and the runner was kind enough to send me a written report, which matched Daisy’s account quite well.
He confirmed seeing “a large, black feline. The field had been cut very recently, and the animal walked immediately in front of a round bale of hay. Because the bale had a diameter of five feet ([he] returned later to measure), [he] was able to judge the size of the animal in relation to the hay bale. The cat was one and a half to two feet tall at the shoulder, and was slightly more than five feet long from its head to the tip of its tail. The head, the long tail, and its movements all were distinctly feline.”
The runner also wrote that “We watched it walk along the edge of the field for a minute or so. When a car passed by, we stopped it so the two people inside could watch, too. Everyone agreed that the animal was feline, and far too large to be a domestic housecat. After a short while the animal walked into the woods behind the field and disappeared.”
Because there were so many people who saw this cat at the same time, I have no doubt that they did, indeed, see a large black cat. The question is, did they all see an animal that scientists claim has never been seen—a melanistic cougar?
If so, did it find its way to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County the same way that coyotes have? Both animals can feed upon the overabundance of deer that is the direct result of men having rid our county of large predators.
(Many hunters claim it’s their job to control deer numbers, but it actually isn’t, as is obvious by how poorly men have been able to step into the role of predator to keep deer numbers limited.)
Or was the large black cat from another country, having been kept as a pet and then let loose? If anyone knows about the possible origin of this animal, please contact me. All information will be kept as confidential as you wish it to be.