Myth, legend or ghost, the Eastern panther haunts us yet 

By Roger Pinckney XI

Daytimes, he looked off into middle distance like he was reading a script off the sky. Nights, the script was in the fireplace flames. Day or night, he held us all captive with the motions of his hands, the rise and fall of his voice, the rhythm of his words, the pauses in between his words. I judged him good as Homer, but he never went blind until the very end.

“On Roseland Plantation back when I was a boy, the panthers squalled like women way down in the swamp.” He paused and looked me square in the eye, “You ever heard a woman squall?”

Momma wept and wrung her hands and got so mad once, she fainted dead away, but she never squalled. “No sir,” I said.

“My grandfather had to keep the hands up all night feeding bonfires around the barnyard. When a panther hollered, the meanest coonhounds rolled their eyes, backed up to the fire till their tails smoked and stank. It was 1927 or 28, near as I can reckon, Jasper County.”

This Lowcountry of South Carolina is a wondrous fertile coastal crescent from the Santee to the Savannah, 200 miles long and 50 miles wide, some of the wildest country still left on the East Coast. Georgetown, Beaufort and Charleston, the Holy City, shine like jewels in the mud. The old rice plantations have gone back to a brooding cypress wilderness, alligators, moccasins and haints. If something’s gonna slip through the cracks, it could slip through here. A half-billion dollars worth of marijuana did and I knew the boys who slipped it, but that’s a whole nuther story.

Call them whatever you want — panther, painter, catamount, puma, wampus cat, mountain lion — Puma concolor is the most widely distributed land mammal in the New World, from Patagonia to Yukon. A foot longer than a man is tall, a big tom will tip two hundred pounds. Stealthy, solitary hunters, they sport paws big as Waffle House waffles, fangs you don’t want to fool with.

Call it the Ghost Cat too. What in the world did I just see? They appear and disappear like swamp-ground haints. They have been in S.C. since the successful conclusion of the last Ice Age, but no longer. And why not? Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says so.

On March 2, 2011, after five years of review, the service declared the eastern cougar extinct since the 1930s. “While we realize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historic range of the eastern cougar,” said Mark Miller, Northeast Chief of endangered species, “we believe these were not the eastern subspecies. We find no evidence of the existence of the eastern cougar.”

Mark Miller needs to get himself down here and tip brown liquor with Tommy Baysden. “In 1978 I saw one, with a young one, on a rice field dike on Johassee in the ACE Basin. Two witnesses were with me, David Maybank and Drayton Hastie of Charleston. We looked at each other, our mouths hanging open and said, “Can you believe what we are seeing?”

Lee Gray would have no problem believing. He saw one two years later, off the New River on Palmetto Bluff — a big black tom, he says, crossing a deadfall pine across a rice canal. “I was fishing with my grandson, but he was too young to remember. I got a good look at him,” Gray wryly recalls, “so there was no need to get out of the boat to investigate further.”

Up on the Palmetto Bluff high ground, Patty Kennedy was director of the local conservancy. “There were ten reported sightings in 2008,” she remembers, “most said the panthers were black but given dim light and a generous plastering of pluff mud, they could have been just about any color at all. We set up game cameras. We got lots of deer and bobcats, but no panthers.”

Forty miles away, Howard Hart was making a late-night run to pick up a load of crabs for Golden Harbor Seafood in Yemassee when a panther crossed the road in front of his truck. “She was skinny and emaciated, almost like she had mange,” Howard remembers. “I called my boss Charlie Marshall and he allowed I had been drinking too much beer. But he made the run the next night and he saw her too, this time with a long string of spotted cubs in tow.”

Bill Hameza, highway construction manager, got within a couple hundred yards of two tawny long-tailed cats while heading for his deer stand in Colleton County in November 2011. Juveniles, he reckons, about a hundred pounds each. Hameza would not get out of his truck. “I hesitate to talk about it,” he said. “People might think I’m nuts.”

Drunk or crazy — common reactions from skeptics, official or otherwise. Was that panther wearing a propeller beanie? George Chastain, director of the 17,000-acre Hobcaw Barony neatly sidesteps the question. “Panther? No, but one time I saw a big bobcat with a real long tail.”

But what if the report comes from a cop, a trained observer whose word is accepted prima facie by any court in the land? What if he is a very special cop, good enough to work undercover? About a decade ago, an undercover enforcement officer saw one cross the road not 20 yards behind his truck near Green Pond. As there were only indistinct pug marks in sugar sand, his report was dismissed by his own department’s biologists. “I’m no veterinarian,” the unnamed officer miffed, “but I know what a horse’s [posterior] looks like. And I know what I saw.”

The list goes on and on, far beyond what time and space allow.

But Ben Moise, retired warden with 23 years in the marsh and mud of the wild Santee Delta, remains skeptical. “When I was with the department, I used to get reports all the time, usually of black panthers. A professor at Clemson sent me a set of plaster casts of front and rear cougar tracks for matching purposes. I kept a gallon jug of water, a sack of plaster of Paris and a mixing pot in the trunk of my patrol car. When I would get a report, I asked the caller to cover the tracks with a bucket or trashcan. I went to every sighting for years and took casts confirming only the passage of dogs, otters and a few bobcats. One security guard at Seabrook Island even said he saw one up on an overhanging limb gnawing on the carcass of a deer the beast had carried up into the tree. Another person swore one jumped on the hood of his car and stared at him through the windshield! I continue to hear reports of sightings from ostensibly knowledgeable people. But in all my years in the wild, I neither saw one or heard one.”

Your publisher recalls seeing a large cat, with a tail as long as its body, run across the road in the western tract of Middleton Place in the early 1980s. Other hunters were in the truck returning from the afternoon deer drives; they all agreed it was most certainly a panther. Not one of them thought to collect a footprint.

So what is going on here, anyway? A piney woods Twilight Zone? Some stump-jumping collective madness? A feline Big Foot Syndrome?

“We’re talking folklore and sociology now,” says Billy Dukes, SCDNR staff biologist. “People will believe what they want to believe. Panthers are big and dangerous but they are gone. People just don’t want to give up on them and maybe that’s good. But the fact remains we have had no credible evidence of a free-roaming, self-sustaining population of panthers in South Carolina since about 1940.”

Retired DNR biologist Sally Murphy amplifies the official explanation: “There are many cougars in the exotic pet trade. When they get too big, people just turn them loose, usually in a remote, wild place…. Some of them might be able to survive in the wild, given all the deer we have now.” Charles Ruth, now the senior deer and turkey man with the DNR, got sent after panthers back in 1990. “Don’t get yourself killed,” his boss advised. Charles Ruth survived. One panther had a collar, the other a tattoo.

**************

On June 11, 2011, a scant four months after the Feds held their last rites for the eastern panther, a panther was struck and killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway just outside Greenwich, CT. At first, wildlife officials stuck with the tired old refrain of a released pet but DNA had the final word. The beast was from the Black Hills of South Dakota, some 1600 miles away. Though New England has a generous share of reports and rumors, there had not been a panther positively documented in those parts since 1938. The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Public Radio’s David Baron, “The Cougar Behind Your Trash Can.” Baron noted to a rapt readership, “The Greenwich cat may have been a lone scout, but you can be sure others will follow. The resilient, elusive cat that haunts the Western landscape will increasingly haunt the East … America has grown a bit less tame.”

***

Scientists have been pawing over Puma concolor since 1792, classifying and reclassifying until there were some 32 separate subspecies, all done without benefit of DNA. In 2001, researchers Culver and Johnson gathered DNA samples from hundreds of cougars, alive and dead, released a landmark study, The Genomic Ancestry of the American Puma which shocked and outraged the scientific community by insinuating there never was an eastern panther to become extinct in the first place, just panthers in the East! And what about the endangered Florida panther, generally known as Puma concolor coryi, down to twenty dispirited and inbred individuals in 1995? After the introduction of eight females trapped in Texas and released in Florida, the population is slowly recovering and now stands at about 160 adult individuals. Are the Florida panthers truly unique, or are they just panthers isolated in Southwest Florida? Call it how you want, the Florida panther is now the Texas panther — as it likely was before I-10 and I-75 got in the way.

As you might expect, conclusions in the cougar genome report have not been enthusiastically embraced by the USF&WS. But a careful reading of the proclamation gives room for wiggle: “We find no evidence for the existence of the eastern cougar” makes no distinction between past and present. But Billy Dukes cuts right to the chase: “I don’t care about the DNA helix. If there are still big cats in South Carolina, show me one.”

Lord knows I tried. Closest I got was a video online of a cougar stalking a deer in suburban Beaufort County, astounding enough, but no casts of paws, no scat. But I know this much. If a Black Hills panther got killed on a freeway in Connecticut, a panther could be anywhere. Even behind your trash can.

 

            Essayist and novelist Roger Pinckney lives on Daufuskie Island, remote, beautiful and sparsely settled. He is author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction.

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