April 2, 2009
Whether you call it a cougar, panther, mountain lion, puma, or catamount, Felis concolor once roamed Alabama. My parents grew up in the Sand Mountain area of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s. They took it for granted that cougars lived there, especially since they heard wild screams at night that their family members identified as panthers. So, it was with great disbelief back in my college days that I heard a professor at Alabama pronounce that there were no permanent populations of long-tailed cats in Alabama nor had there been in years.
It seems that the state of Alabama agrees with him. According to Ken Daniel, an officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division with over 19 years on the job, there is no hard, state-recognized evidence of a permanent population of cougars or any other long-tailed cat. The population was likely eliminated by the middle of the 20th century, if not before. There have been no recent game camera pictures, no videos, no roadside carcasses, or any other verifiable accounts. Instead, Officer Daniel says there are anecdotal reports almost every year in Perry County. “We get somewhere between five and ten people per year reporting cougars or other big cats. About half of these people are credible folks.”
What are they seeing? Officer Daniel says it is a mixed bag of possibilities. “A few years ago in Dallas County, someone reported seeing a cougar in their backyard. Based on our investigation, we think someone in the area might have had a pet cougar that got loose.” Other incidents are harder to explain. Officer Daniel recounted a deer hunter’s experience from a few years ago in the area near Mars Hill Cemetery. The hunter saw what looked to him like a cougar, and the experience rattled him so badly that he stayed in the tree stand all day until his son came to pick him up at sunset. Another time, Officer Daniel responded to a nighttime call from a man in Sprott. The man’s dog had started barking, so the man grabbed a flashlight. According to the man, the light revealed a cougar. The man and his dog quickly retreated to the house. When Officer Daniel arrived, he was unable to find signs of any animals having been in the area that the man indicated. There were no tracks, even though the area was muddy.
Sometimes, though, it is a case of misidentification. Daniel mentioned one incident where a hunter shot at what he thought was a cougar chasing a deer across a field right at sunset. (Although cougars are not supposed to be in Alabama, they are still protected and have no open season. In other words, shooting at them is a bad idea unless you are protecting yourself.) The next morning, the hunter and his friends realized the cougar was really an oddly-shaped clod of dirt with a large shock of grass where the tail would have been. In other instances, the answer might be very simple. Alabama does have bobcats, or, as Daniel said, “A lot of times they (people reporting large cats) are just seeing big dogs.” Daniel also mentioned that there are occasionally bears in our area as they travel between northern and southern Alabama. The population near the Mobile Delta area near Saraland numbers approximately 50 to 75, and bears from this southern Alabama group sometimes mingle with bears in northeast Alabama and northern Georgia and vice versa.
In the case of one local man, however, the mystery is in the form of some odd, large animal tracks he and some fellow hunters found about ten years ago. Michael Woodfin says that the tracks were near a dirt road close to a green field about 3/4 of a mile behind the Sprott store. The men found some plaster of Paris and made a cast of the best print. The paw prints were approximately five inches across and five and a half inches long. The print was an inch deep in the mud. The heel pad was two and half inches wide by three inches long. The claws are not obvious in the cast. They also made a cast of an obvious dog or coyote track found in the same area by way of comparison. It was about three and a half by four and a half inches in size. Most sources say that bobcat prints are about one to three inches, coyote and large dog prints average two to four inches long, and cougar prints are approximately 4 inches in either direction.
Perhaps most puzzling are the reports of large black cats. For example, a man reported to Officer Daniel that he was driving one evening and saw a large black cat eating some road kill on the side of Highway 14 near the Sprott store. The problem with this report is that there are not supposed to be any large black cats in Alabama at all. True black panthers are actually either black jaguars or black leopards as North American cougars are generally believed to be incapable of being black, and none of these animals are supposed to be running around in Alabama.
Yet Ken Daniel himself saw a large, dark, long-tailed cat. “I was in the southern part of Perry County checking on some people I thought might be hunting out of season. I was hiding near some old chicken houses and saw a dark olive drab colored cat with a long tail.” Daniel says that it was bigger than a house cat and was spotted with the red clay from under the chicken houses. He thinks it was likely a jaguarundi, a cat more commonly found in Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.
I contacted Loren Coleman to ask him about strange animal sightings in Alabama. He is a well-known, award-winning researcher and author with nearly 50 years of experience in cryptozoology, the study of unknown or scientifically unrecognized animals. Frequent viewers of the History Channel may know him as one of the experts featured on MonsterQuest. Our conversation will be the subject of next week’s column.Meanwhile, if you have experienced a strange animal sighting, and especially if you have evidence of this experience, please contact me at the newspaper office, or email me at email@example.com