MY HEART POUNDED as I saw the silhouette of a black cat move through the tall grass. Headed toward a clearing on the edge of a bayou, it would only be seconds before it stepped into the open.
The fact I was on an expedition to investigate “black panther” sightings in the area added to the excitement.
What was I about to see?
As its head peeked out of the grass at a distance of about 70 yards, I thought it might be a jaguarundi. When the entire body came out, it was apparent that was not the case.
I estimated this cat to be around 42-45 inches in length, stocky, with a tail longer than the body and sporting a solid, dark coat.
The cat quickly shot into a thin line of cattails that intersected a marsh, and I never saw it again.
This was the fall of 2007, and I knew I had not seen a jaguarundi or a jaguar or a black cougar. It was a domestic cat or some hybrid, and it was bigger than average. Somehow I knew that when an untrained eye saw this cat, the name “black panther” would get bestowed upon it quickly.
About two years after that, game camera prices plummeted and smartphones began featuring quality cameras. So, I started receiving numerous cat photos from readers. Most of them inquired whether the cat they captured an image of was a “black panther.”
A couple asked whether it might be a jaguarundi. All but two of them have been some feral house cat.
I believe they are the source of the vast majority of black panther sightings. I believe this for three key reasons.
People Cannot Judge Size: I have received dozens of photos of bobcats people sent to me insisting they were cougars. I have now come to the conclusion many cougar sightings in nontraditional habitat are bobcats. I have personally identified dozens of black panther sightings as house cats or some hybrid. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Distribution: Feral house cats dwell throughout North America, have large populations in many forested areas and are the only known black cat to dwell continent-wide. I have received multiple photos of readers wondering what kind of wildcat they captured on their game camera. It turned out they were white, tabby and other colored feral house cats. People are not prepared to see a wild cat in the woods, but they are abundant. When they see a black one, they often label it “panther.”
New research in Australia, which has a massive feral cat problem, suggests these cats are growing to much bigger sizes than anyone would expect. Recent statistics attributed to Oklahoma wildlife officials state sizes of up to 35 pounds for feral cats.
As you can see, a photo accompanying the Oklahoma statistics (below) features a large black cat with a long tail. The cat has a build somewhat like a domestic cat, but it has a very long tail.
Judging by the size of the cinder blocks, it is larger than the average house cat.
I have officially dubbed these “Black Longtails.”
Texas-based researcher Jeff Stewart who captured a similar cat on a game camera in Panola County has an interesting idea.
“One theory I have been working on to explain the sightings of large black cats in the South is that interbreeding could happen between a large cat with no black gene (such as a cougar) and another, which has the gene, then the offspring have the ability to be black or even produce black kittens themselves,” Stewart said.
Hybridization is rampant in cats, and stranger things have happened in nature.
These black longtails could simply be feral domestic house cats that are adapting to a wild life. Or maybe there has been some sort of hybridization going on that science has not discovered.
Feral house cats are the key to understanding the bulk of the black panther phenomenon in America.
My research has shown me jaguarundis play a part in this as well. There is a slight chance of melanistic jaguars and bobcats in the mix. We can scratch black cougars off the list as there is no evidence they exist. There has never been a single black cougar examined by a scientist, although, thousands are killed annually and thousands more in zoos around the world.
The corporate wildlife media have perpetuated the black panther hoax for ratings and web traffic. Most researchers, including myself, have overlooked the obvious as a solution because so many credible witnesses have great panther stories.
On this end, the research will continue in the field by communicating with people throughout the country who hunt, fish, ranch, farm, and spend time in nature.
The black longtail is out there. Whether it is an evolving house cat or something else, it’s a mystery worth pursuing despite its domestic roots.
Jaguars are strong swimmers and climbers and require large areas of tropical rain forest and stretches of riverbank to survive. A model for conservation, the Amazon Region Protected Areas ensures 150 million acres—three times the size of all US parks combined—of the Amazon are protected in perpetuity.
—story by CHESTER MOORE