By SAMMY FRETWELL
Posted on Sat, Jan. 27, 2007
A federal forester says he was chased into the Chattooga River by a 7-foot-long panther with “jet black” fur.
Terrance Fletcher, a technician with the U.S. Forest Service, dove into the frigid water and crawled up the bank in South Carolina to escape.
“The animal started running … so I decided to run and get away and jump in the river to get across to the other side,” Fletcher said this week. “It was a life-changing event for me.”
The incident occurred the second week in January along the mountain river separating Georgia and South Carolina.
Black panthers are not native to the southeastern United States, meaning Fletcher might have seen a river otter or a bobcat, state wildlife officials in Georgia and South Carolina said.
Still, Fletcher and Forest Service District Ranger Dave Jensen said they think he saw some sort of large cat on the Georgia side of the river.
“It was a little too big to be a bobcat,” Fletcher said. “My first impression was a panther.”
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources found no evidence of large cat tracks in the area where Fletcher said he saw the animal, but the Georgia DNR’s Kevin Lowrey said it’s possible a black panther was lurking in the woods.
If so, it was probably an exotic pet that escaped, he said. His agency regularly receives reports of people seeing cougars, large tawny cats that were once native to Georgia and South Carolina. Officials say the creatures are likely escaped pet cougars or other animals, rather than wild cougars.
“We don’t have a native black cat in the United States,” Lowrey said. “That just tells me it was something released.”
Lowrey, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia agency, said people hiking or fishing along the Chattooga River should not be overly concerned. The river is the only federally designated wild and scenic river in South Carolina, and it is popular with recreational enthusiasts.
Lowrey said folks should always be aware of their surroundings when in the forest.
Fletcher, a 24-year-old Alabama native, said he and another Forest Service technician were surveying trails on the Georgia side of the river south of the Burrells Ford bridge when they separated.
While taking a break near the river bank, Fletcher heard rustling in the woods and looked in that direction. Staring back at him was what appeared to be a black panther, crouched on the forest floor like a house cat stalking a bird, he said.
When he stood up, the cat started running, prompting him to take the icy dip in the Chattooga. Soaked to the skin and freezing, he met up with his partner and walked through the woods to their Forest Service truck.
“We just got on out of there,” Fletcher said, adding he remains a bit spooked by the incident. “I don’t know how long (the feeling) will last.”
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.