Reported sightings cause dispute
February 12, 2006
By JOANIE BAKER
Index-Journal staff writer
A sign that reads “Caution: Big cats in area.”
Trying to get a precautionary sign such as this is what motivates Bobby Revels to continue his restless crusade to prod government agencies to acknowledge the existence of the big cats reportedly sighted in the Lakelands.
Since Revels heard a cat bellow so loud he could “hear the bushes shaking” more than a year ago, he has dedicated much of his free time to documenting people’s sightings, their accounts of livestock deaths and researching the Eastern Cougar, which many officials have told him is confused with a coyote or someone’s pet.
“This has become a passion for me,” said Revels, who keeps all of his research in a large binder titled “The Black Cat Hunt.”
“I am so frustrated with the government,” he said. “I have talked to so many officials who say there is no such animal.”
And Revels isn’t the only one. Some of the people in the Lakelands interviewed said they think government agencies will not admit that the species is here because they do not want residents to become hysterical. Others said agencies don’t acknowledge the big cats’ presence for insurance reasons.
The scientific side
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Biologist David Rabon said that because there has never been any documented proof of the felis concolor cougar, or Eastern Cougar (also known as a panther, puma or mountain lion) in the form of a photo, video, feces or tracks, he thinks the animal is extirpated and possibly extinct.
“I don’t doubt that there are large cats out there, but I don’t know that I would call them an Eastern Cougar,” he said, adding they could be a subspecies of the animal that is protected. “Probably, those animals out there are most likely released or escaped animals that were raised in captivity but are still wild animals.”
Judy Barnes, a wildlife biologist of small game at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said there is not enough evidence to prove they are here. The ones that have been caught in the past have had “cat food” in their stomachs, proving they were domestic pets, she said. Still, she said all kinds of people, including doctors, lawyers, mail carriers and pastors, call in sightings to the department at least once a week.
“They are all very credible people. They are educated and know what they’ve seen,” she said. “But we have to go by research that has been done and by professionals who have spent their entire career researching this.”
Just because there have not been any “proven” sightings or photographic evidence that the cats are here does not mean they won’t be here in the future, an Associated Press report indicated.
The AP reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report that the Florida panther might be moved to other areas of the Southeast to help the endangered species breed.
The report said the plan is intended to “downlist the Florida panther to ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act” as its current habitat has become “more limited because of urban sprawl, agricultural development and road building.”
Though the plan includes possibly introducing the panther to locations across the Southeast, there is not a timetable, and extensive public hearings and coordination with state agencies will take place first.
In an effort to provide agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service proof that the cats are already here, Revels has set up three motion-detecting cameras in areas where the cats have reportedly been sighted. Revels said he checks them every morning, and though he has yet to capture one of the black beasts on film, he thinks his long list of nearly 100 encounters reported to him over the past two years is enough to prove they’re here.
Abbeville resident Riley McLane is one of the many people who has told Revels his story of an animal mauled by what he thinks was a big cat.
One early April morning, McLane said he heard a dog barking behind his house and turned a light on to see what the commotion was about. Upon closer investigation with a bright, hand-held light, McLane said he saw his neighbor’s miniature horse moving toward a pond and a large cat not far away.
“(The cat’s) ears were outlined in the light. The insides were almost luminesce,” McLane said. “I couldn’t see the face, just the ears and the outline of the body. Then it turned and went off toward the light. (I turned to the) right and saw another set of eyeballs looking at me and decided I better get in the house.”
McLane said he went back in the house and kept looking out his window to see the miniature horse but couldn’t find it. About 7 a.m., he came out with binoculars and found the horse lying in the mouth of a ditch. After informing his neighbors of his findings, the group went down to find “Sunshine,” a 23-year-old birthday gift of the woman, had been mauled to death.
McLane said that judging by the wounds on throat and side of the horse, which lived another hour after being found, he thinks there were two cats involved.
According to The Cougar Almanac, big cats attack by leaping on large animals’ backs and twisting or biting into the animals’ necks. Death is usually “due to one of the cougar’s large canine teeth forcing vertebrae apart and severing the prey’s spinal cord.” The almanac says cougars then attack the side of the body and eat the internal organs first, making McLane’s depiction of the horse eerily similar.
Amos Cunningham, of Due West, had a “frightening” encounter with what he thinks was a big cat.
He said that for three nights his son’s pet goat would cry out, and, from somewhere in the distance, a cat would bellow out a cry in return. Cunningham said that each night the crying cat sounded as if it were getting closer, but he didn’t think anything about it.
On the third morning, he found the head of the goat with about four inches of spinal cord still attached to the chain, while the remainder of the carcass had been carried up a tree.
“It takes something very powerful and strong to pull the head off a goat,” said Cunningham, who said he searched for tracks with a game warden who was also mystified by the scene. “It would take a powerful cat to do that.”
Cunningham said the warden gave him traps to set out, but he never caught anything. He said he has seen three the cats in the area, one that was able to jump across the street in one leap.
Revels said he thinks that even if some residents had shot a cougar, which would prove their existence here, many are intimidated by the hefty fines that can be incurred for killing an endangered animal.
A popular aphorism is often recited by residents on the subject: Shoot it, shovel it and shut up about it.
Though some people are skeptical of the “ghost cat’s” existence at all, Ellen and Wayne Treece are believers. About eight years ago, before the sightings had become popular and their stories widespread, Ellen said she saw one 300 yards from her house. Revels said that many of the sightings reported to him have been of black cats on people’s property or even standing on the side of the road.
“I was washing the dishes and standing there watching the birds when I saw something in the pasture,” said Ellen, who thinks the cats have come into her neighborhood because of the large deer population. “I saw a big cat and it had a long tail and there was a little one following behind it.”
Barnes said she thinks the animals that come close on people’s property were once domestic animals that are used to human contact. Others think the animals are moving into cities as a result of having been pushed out of their habitats from commercialization.
A lifetime of study
John Lutz, of Maysville, W.Va., has been studying cat sightings and Eastern Puma history since he worked as a volunteer for the Maryland State Police, where he took about 5,000 reports from 1967-85. Lutz said he got interested in the phenomenon in 1965 when he worked as a news reporter for a radio station. Since then, Lutz has taken more than 7,500 reports and has started the nonprofit Eastern Puma Research Network, a grass-roots wildlife study group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the native eastern mountain lion sub-species to its former range.
Lutz has traveled to places in Florida to study the panther and its movements and said they were perhaps brought to America on slave ships many years ago. Because slave traders did not have enough men to watch over the captives all the time, it is said that they used a large black cat to maintain domination.
Threat or not?
Lutz said it is important to know that pumas are not man-eaters; they like a challenge such as a deer, but that does not mean they are vegetarians, he added.
There have only been three human attacks on the East Coast, two of which occurred in the late 1800s, said Lutz, who recommends that people who come across the cats treat them as oversized domestic cats by talking to them and making sure not to run away or turn their backs to them. If at all possible, Lutz said to keep a tree between you and the cat.
But Revels said he is still concerned for residents and children who could be attacked. Though there have not been any local reports of humans attacked, Revels points out that in Caspers Wilderness Park in California, officials had not acknowledged the presence of cougars until a 5-year-old girl was attacked while playing in a creek. The girl was paralyzed and lost vision in one eye. Her family sued county authorities and was awarded $2 million in damages, The Cougar Almanac says.
Today, hikers wanting to visit Caspers must sign a waver and are familiarized with the sign that reads: “Caution: Mountain Lion On Trail.”
Lutz said that although the animal is popular on the West Coast, only the state of Delaware recognizes the animal’s existence in its wildlife on the East Coast.
But that won’t stop Revels from trying to get a sign.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 150 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564
Meet our recent mountain lion cub rescues: