ARE BIG BLACK CATS MORE THAN A HALLOWEEN PHENOMENON?
Black cats and Halloween are a natural combination. In fact, some superstitious folk think they come out in greater numbers on Halloween night, maybe riding on the back of a witch's broomstick. Or slinking across someone's path to bring bad luck. From an ecological standpoint, black cats have an element of mystery that has nothing to do with superstition. Over the last 30 years I have had no fewer than a dozen people tell me that they have seen a black panther. We are not talking about in zoos, books or movies, but in the wild at various places in the southern United States. Are the stories true? Do giant black cats really exist in North America?
The black panther of jungle lore certainly exists. Black phases of leopards in Asia and Africa and of jaguars in tropical America occur in the wild. The genetic phenomenon known as melanism, which results in an individual being almost completely black, occurs in many mammal species in which shades of white, gray, tan or brown are typically more prevalent. Melanism has been documented in coyotes, gray squirrels and even rarely in white-tailed deer, producing almost pure black individuals.
In rare instances a native U.S. species of large cat, the bobcat, can be completely black. Bobcats occur throughout most of the United States, southern Canada and Mexico. Photographs and museum skins offer scientific verification that such individuals exist. Most of the verified records are from Florida, but at least one black bobcat was found in eastern Canada. Presumably, the genetic condition that causes a bobcat to be black could occur geographically anywhere in between Florida and Canada.
report seeing a "black panther" in the wild in North America,
they usually mean the mountain lion (aka cougar, puma, catamount). And
reports of people seeing black mountain lions abound. Yet, no photograph,
no carcass, no scientific proof of any sort has ever been provided to
indicate that a mountain lion can be solid black. This does not mean that
a melanistic mountain lion does not exist somewhere or did not exist in
the past. It only means that its existence has not been verified.
Another explanation is that a person might mistake a large, long-tailed, dark-colored dog or coyote for a big cat, particularly at night or in fading light. To the embarrassment of two different individuals who made such sightings, the animals left footprints that were made into plaster casts for identification--dog feet both times.
Another possibility exists in many southern states where it is legal to keep large house pets, including tigers, leopards or even jaguars if you can get one. The black varieties of leopards and jaguars are proportionately more common among captive animals than in the wild because of selective breeding. Having a big cat escape from a zoo or a personal holding facility is certainly not unheard of. A big cat owner might be reluctant to admit that an enormous, stealthy predator had been unleashed in the neighborhood. So such a sighting would not be validated by the pet owner's saying, "Hey, that's my missing black leopard."
explanation for people who believe they have seen a large, long-tailed
black cat in the wild is that they actually did see a black mountain lion.
Maybe they exist but are so rare that the carcass of one has never been
found. Halloween is probably not the best time to be believed if you report
such a sighting, but if you see one, it just might be real.
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