Black Cougars in the Great Smoky Mountains

The odds are that the person saw an unusually large house cat and in the fog did not accurately judge its size. But if several eyewitness all agree that it was too large to be a house cat, then indeed maybe we all should consider that it there just might be a large black feline on the prowl. But it almost certainly is not a young leopard or jaguar.

Neither is it likely to be a bobcat or a mountain lion, two native large feral feline species. While melanism is fairly common in the feline family, there is not a single validated record of a black mountain lion to have ever existed. Likewise, black bobcats are unknown and besides, bobcats have that unusual half-length tail that they keep out-stretched behind them; it’s hard not to notice.

As unlikely as this may sound, unless a large black feline has escaped one of a local wildlife refuge, the most likely identification of a large feral black feline with a long tail is a “black panther.”

Now the word “panther’ is a common name that is used to refer to mountain lions in some regions of this country. “Panther” is also a commonly used name for leopards, especially the black color-phase of leopard that is found in both Asian and African populations. I’m placing “black panther” in quotation marks because I’m not referring to either of those cat species. I’m referring to one of America’s most commonly observed mystery animals.

“Black panther” sightings have been reported in North America since European settlers hit the shores. There are sightings in every state in the United States, including Alaska and even Hawaii. There have been reported sightings in the countryside and in the city, and at all times of the day and night. Some “black panthers” have been seen at a distance and others have been so close that the witnesses reported smelling their breath. Some black panthers have been credited with killing livestock, some have been witnessed in the act. Some have threatened people, but there are no reports of them actually contacting a human. Most just seem to appear–for instance suddenly crossing the road in front of a car–and then go out of sight.

Usually there is a rash of sightings in an area that might last for a few months up to a year and in a few cases even longer; then the animal just ceases to be seen. No “black panther” has ever been captured or killed in North America.

What are they? No one knows. They seem to be big black cats but exactly what they are and why people keep seeing them is a mystery. It’s a situation similar to the sasquatch or bigfoot phenomenon, but “black panthers” have never had the publicity that follows bigfoot.

There are numerous books on the topic of cryptozoology with chapters devoted to the “black panther” phenomenon; the authors have documented case after case of just plain folks, including policemen, mayors and other solid citizens, who reported seeing “black panthers.”

Many reports included some mysterious aspect with an otherwise very normal animal observation, seemingly a combination of real and unreal events. For example, a group of several witnesses, including a state policeman and a mayor, standing on a highway bridge, observed a “black panther” walk across a sandbar, crouch down at stream-side to drink, and then walk back to disappear into the woods; closer investigation by the witnesses showed the cat left no tracks in the soft damp sand. There are numerous reports of “black panthers” being shot at close range, only to bound away apparently unharmed.

Just like with UFOs and bigfoot, many people who see “black panthers” never report them. I personally know two people, each a keen naturalist with a lot of animal experience, who had good looks at “black panthers,” but they weren’t quick to tell about their experiences. So keep an eye out for a “black panther.” Maybe some of you have already seen one.

2 Likes

Black panthers in North America, Bigfoot, and house cats the size of cougars are all in the same category: totally unsubstantiated. But show me physical evidence of any of these and I’ll revise my thinking. I’ll wait.

5 Likes

Depending on when and where this animal was seen, my bets are on bear. They’re all over Great Smoky Mountains National Park, plus prowling the streets of surrounding towns like Gatlinburg at night to look for food, many having lost their fear of humans. My personal experience is about 1-3 bear sightings for every trip to the Smokies, especially if it involves a several hour long hike and/or a morning/evening drive around Cades Cove. If it was far enough into the park and away from human settlements, encountering a black bear is probably much more likely than a big house cat lost in the woods. The bears are hibernating through the winter though.

1 Like

could be a bear. could be a feral hog. could be a black lab (i’ve seen people insist that golden retrievers were cougars). But I’ll need solid evidence before I buy a black cougar/leopard/other cat hanging around

3 Likes

Yes indeed, which is why I’m asking for evidence.

1 Like

I’m not saying black panthers and bigfoots are real, substantiated, or even of this world. But something that looks like black panthers and bigfoots is out there walking around and thousands and thousands of people have seen them. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors and I’ve never seen either, but I do know two calm, sane, normal people–observant outdoors country folk-- who have had interactions close-up with black panthers that scared the hell out of them.

1 Like

Cougar Rewilding Foundation has written entire articles on this enduring myth. Their goal is to see cougars reestablished in the eastern US, and so they follow up alleged sightings. There have been genuine dispersing cougars (from the West) found in some eastern states, and in at least one documented case, kittens born in the wild as a result of a dispersing male cougar mating with an escaped-pet female cougar. But none, I repeat none of the alleged “black cougar” or “black panther” sightings have panned out. Labrador retrievers and black feral cats are the usual critters mistaken for “black cougars.” The Foundation also points out that the common housecat habit of walking with the tail pointing straight up is not physically possible for cougars; so if the tail is pointing straight up, it’s a domestic or feral cat.

6 Likes

Don’t doubt that. But it doesn’t make it so. I’ve had these conversations with those I’d consider rational, sane people and other conversations with people I might not put in that category. People report all kinds of things based on animals they glimpse in the field. Some are familiar with wildlife and others not. Sometimes their interpretation of what they saw when I talk to them has been influenced by discussions with other people or by pictures they saw on the internet (the latter has become common and no doubt influences what a person thinks they saw). It’s an interesting field of inquiry, these reported sightings of cryptids, but it’s not evidence that there are large mammal species out there in North America that remain unknown to science.

2 Likes

It isn’t hard to find on Google, there’s tons of examples.

1 Like

So it should be easy for you to link me to a credible one with a photo or other compelling evidence.

2 Likes

Speaking of cryptozoology, this all reminds me of segments they’d do in MonsterQuest (remember that show?). For a few of the cryptids they’d make replicas and ask members of the public to try to guess the size of it- at night, or in the sky, but always without some kind of reference- and they’d ALWAYS guess it wrong. Like way, way off. I found one episode on youtube (clip starts at 17:44). The Mothman one is better but I can’t find the specific episode right now. Not to discount the possibility of escaped captive black panthers, which I’m certain there have been a few, but I think most of the time it’s just perspective.

2 Likes

I also found this site with some historical instances of black/color mutated pumas, some with pictures, some just drawings/writings, and definitely not super well supported, but an interesting read for sure! I’ve referenced this site for domestic cat genetic mutations & myths and it’s super interesting, although taken with a grain of salt.

Edit 1: I wonder if there was more variation in puma populations when the populations were larger, before they were hunted to the scattered population levels they’re at today?

Edit 2: Another messybeast page referencing the giant Australian cat from above!

2 Likes

You’re right, it isn’t:

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/enormous-feral-cat-catches-goanna-in-australian-desert/QGK4WYLCEMAC6EDZY4WPKVEPZM/

1 Like

The article suggests these big feral cats can be over 7 kg. Most house cats are in the 3-5 kg range. So yeah, these are big cats. But a cougar can be in the 34-80 kg range.

2 Likes

Over 7 kg does not sound unusual to me - some of my rescued ferals managed that as well. Some breeds like Maine Coon, will easily top 8 kg in a healthy male. None of that is anywhere near cougar size.

2 Likes

In the sixties, my neighbors had two unrelated cats that were 21 pounds and 19 pounds. They were pretty tall cats and not very fat. My neighbors fed them Alpo, a common brand of pet food at the time. I always wondered what Alpo added to their food to grow such big cats!

1 Like

I didn’t say this was evidence of the giant feral cat mentioned earlier.

1 Like

So this is a fascinating discussion from a folkloric perspective. I really haven’t heard much about these stories of large cats in the Appalachians, and I am surprised they go back centuries. I am wondering if there is a book or article out there written from a folklorist’s perspective that someone might recommend? One of my other interests is folklore, and I’d enjoy reading a scholarly study of the legend if there is one. I know there are a lot of websites proclaiming the existence of such panthers or denying the claims. But, I’m looking for a piece tracing the origins of the story itself, not a piece trying to verify or negate the claims. I usually find such stories reveal interesting insights about how people have interacted with the land and nature.

2 Likes

Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America by Michael Mayes. I don’t own a copy but I’ve browsed it, years ago.

2 Likes

Thanks! I’ll look it up.

1 Like