Sunday, 25 March 2007

When is a 'panther' not a 'panther' ?

The term ‘panther’ is one, which especially in Britain, confuses, and many ‘researchers are guilty of using the word. The press are the most guilty of using a categorisation they do not understand, especially when they so casually speak of black panthers. Across the U.S.A., ‘panther’ only describes one species of felid, that being the puma ( Cougar, Mountain Lion ), which is also known in folkloric terms as the ‘mountain devil’, ‘ghost cat’ and the ‘painter’. In the United States the term ‘black panther’ creates an almost impossible image, that being the possibility that there could be an abundant population of melanistic puma, despite the fact these darker coated animals are considered ultra-rare, in fact non-existent. In the United Kingdom the press make matters even more confused by constantly featuring reports in their pages of black panthers, or black, ‘puma-like’ cats, when the reality is, 99%, if not 100% of these statements are inaccurate. But what do they care ?
It is highly unlikely that an abundant population
of black cougars roam the U.S., despite it being this particular cats homeland, and so to suggest that black puma roam Britain is ridiculous. It is amazing at how so many members of the public have never even heard of the black leopard, the species which mainly answers for a majority of big, black cat sightings, especially in Kent anyway. Across the U.S.A., and judging by historical accounts, some believe, albeit in folkloric terms, that black puma do exist. Some, albeit a very minute number of darker coated specimens have been spoken of, allegedly photographed, killed or at least sighted by those in the right place at the right time, and annually thousands of reports in the U.S. do appear to describe cats that fit the puma description, yet the animals in question do have pure black coats, or very dark coats. However, do the public expect every ‘cat’ to be a cougar if such an animal is their native felid ? If people across the U.S. are seeing released melanistic leopards, would they report their sighting as a black leopard or as a clack cougar ? The puma coat coloration varies from reddish-fawn, from brown to silvery grey, and at times its coat varies depending on the region of its habitat with greyish animals often sighted towards the northern area of its range, whilst in more wooded, humid areas the puma coat is said to be reddish in colour. Coat thickness also varies depending on habitat, and whilst melanistic cougars are said to inhabit Southern and Central America, albino felids are even more scarce. The U.S. has a similar situation as the U.K. in regards to possible existence of cougars, although it seems likely that those that roam areas of the States are simply elusive generations spawned from those that were allegedly wiped out during the early 1900s. A number of felids in the U.S. are considered to be discarded pets, but due to their secret nature this cannot be proven otherwise, especially with the vast woodlands they inhabit.
It is ridiculous to suggest that the cats which inhabit the U.S., the UK, and Australia are all released pets, because the facts are, anyone who may have kept a cat, twenty to thirty years ago, or even now, do not necessarily house their exotics in dilapidated, shambolic surroundings to the extent that these animals escape for fun leaving the owner not giving a damn. Many people that owned exotic cats in the UK during
the ‘50s, ‘60s etc, wouldn’t all of a sudden release the pets they loved so dearly, although it is fair to say that there are cases where cats would have been obtained for a low price, and still can be obtained, and released on purpose, especially as the animals in question become more than cuddly novelties and out grow their basement cage. Put simply though, there must have already been cats in the wilds of Great Britain, but over time the press, and some researchers would have you believe that this imaginary explosion has taken place since the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, but one only has to exhaustively search through historical reports of exotic cat sightings to realise this situation has been here for many years, but as a very much ignored situation that is no busier now than it ever has been, it’s just that more people are looking into the scenario, knowledgeable or not. And so began the fickle hunt for the ‘panthers’.
Across the U.S. exhaustive research conducted to siphon out the obscure, historical accounts, eye-witness reports, and documented snippets has enabled the ‘black cats’ of today to make more sense. In Britain there was no serious research until cats such as the Surrey puma flaps came along, the press failed to latch onto the reports, but reports were few and far between because there was no real reason to report anything, and so it appears that the counties across the U.K., with every single one having cat activity, appear to have huge gaps regarding sightings, although others do appear in anecdotic conditions, as most things of that nature do, despite the fact that these animals are very real. From the Victorian era and through the war ravaged first half of the 1900s, no-one was interested in reports of wild cats, but it is very likely that people were seeing strangely large felid almost as regular as they are now.

If black panthers in their truest form roam the planet then melanistic pumas, albeit being extremely rare, have been propelled, unintentionally, into the limelight, despite being the most unlikely candidate for the big, black cat reports when melanism is common in a number of other cat species and the Jaguarundi, is a relatively dark coated cat which is native across Texas, Arizona and much of South America, although it resembles an otter, but does have a small head, rounded ears, shortish legs which support a slender body, with a tail that can measure over fifty centimetres. These are characteristics often recalled in some eye-witness reports describing dark coated ‘puma’, whilst the Jaguarundi, which is unlikely to be behind some cat sightings in the U.K., although not impossible, also has a varying coat. However, if real, dark coated cougars are prowling the U.S., it is surely the only region that should harbour them, simply because it is their native habitat but what is the likelihood that even 25% of reports of black cats in Britain are of melanistic puma ? Remote, to say the least. Yes, there are still many who cannot accept that even the natural melanistic leopards roam Britain, let alone the United States, despite the fact that many people during the 1960s would have found the black leopard to have been the most trendy and ‘flash’ of cats to own. In Australia people still question the existence of black leopards, let alone the possible existence of the once native Tasmanian Tiger. The facts are, with only the last thirty years or so being concentrated on research into reports, means that any period of time prior would have given any felids enough time to establish themselves, breed, die, breed, die etc, etc. If people were not interested in reports of big cats in places they shouldn’t be, then for what could well be over one-hundred years or more, a great number of varying exotics could have exploded time and time again population, more so to during periods when woodland was far greater than it is now, and it is because of this shrinkage in habitat, due to human development, that more and more of these cats, especially in the U.S.A. and U.K. are being seen. It also must be said that it is impossible to surmise as to how many cats are in Britain, let alone larger counties where they shouldn’t be. The so-called research being put in is hardly scratching the surface, because these animals can remain undetected for years, especially smaller cats, especially as they are often misunderstood due to poor press coverage, and so-called research being aimed at them is nothing more than a bit of ‘fame’ and attention for the so-called enthusiasts, when the reality is, animals such as the leopard, even when tracked and monitored by professional people, in the heart of countries such as Africa, despite the animals territory being monitored, have disappeared from human view for over a year, with females only returning to certain areas to give birth. Britain can certainly provide enough heavy cover for animals naturally elusive, and despite human intrusion these animals will always remain far too elusive for the human detection. Thank goodness for that.
Would people during the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and previous, have even known what sort of cats that were obtaining ? There is a good chance that a number of exotic cats taken in were for the novelty, and so cats such as the caracal, jungle cat and the African/Asian golden cat, despite being endangered in some parts of their native countries as well as hardly seen, would have established themselves here, remaining undetected probably for most of their short lives. However, could such cats, and even rarer cats only seen in zoos, roam Britain ? Well, it seems likely. If reports are few and far between of a certain type of cat, does not necessarily mean it must be dismissed. Cats such as the leopard and the puma will have far larger territories than something like the caracal, and so there is more of a chance that a four-feet long, black animal will be sighted, despite moving mainly at night. However, we only have to look at the various reports through the years in Britain of a ‘lioness’ or ‘tiger’ for one to realise that a number of people are unsure as to what they are dealing with and seeing, so it is certainly possible that run down collections have housed several smaller cats, which their appalling owners have thought were something indeed they were not.
If someone obtained a melanistic golden cat, either after being told it was a black leopard, or simply wanting a black ‘big cat’, and such an animal escaped and bred as a pair, then black offspring would be evident. This isn’t to say that in the wilds of Kent or anywhere else in the British Isles there are large numbers of melanistic caracal or golden cat, but in a few cases such animals would explain the unusual reports of smaller exotic cats with dark coats, that quite simply to do not appear to be leopard young. It must also be said that it is quite possible that cats such as the Asiatic and African golden cat are also mistaken for the puma in some instances, simply because to the untrained eye of the general public due to the fact that much of the public is unaware of the different species of cat, especially when for so long they have always believed puma are black. The African golden cat ( felis aurata ) is a strong felid with a smallish head, long legs and is over twice the size of a domestic cat, standing twenty inches at the shoulder, with a body length of two-and-a half-feet, with a coat of great variation that be anything from reddish fawn to greyish with a white underside, as well as some species having some dotting. Black specimens have been recorded in this species, but more so in the Asiatic golden cat which seems the most likely cat to feature in some reports of alleged puma which somehow do not seem to fit in with puma reports.

The Asiatic golden cat, (felis temmincki – named after Coenraad Jacob Temminck, the Dutch naturalist who described the African golden cat ), is slightly larger than its relation, but again there are variations in size and colour with melanism occurring often. In some cases, especially in Kent melanistic versions may be behind so-called black leopard reports and the golden brown to darker brown variation may also be behind some puma reports, as the Temminck’s Cat has a thick tail throughout with white underside, ears are rounded and these felids can reach well over two-feet in length, however some specimens have spotted flanks. Unfortunately little is known about this cat in its native land so for it to be monitored in Britain is nigh on impossible, especially as cats like the caracal, are being lumped in with the reports of other cats, simply because those that see these elusive cats cannot give the defining details

We cannot ignore the possibility that Britain, and the counties within its fold could well harbour smaller exotic cats and in some instances, not necessarily as many large cats as one might think. However, this would then suggest that a number of golden cats, caracal, etc , would have had to have escaped from somewhere in the first place in order to spawn the current population, but this isn’t necessarily so. A steady influx of cats, from a) private collections, b) zoo escapees, c) genuine generations spawned from families several years ago, d) cats used aboard boats for ratting which have come ashore, e) in some cases especially imported either to be hunted, or released deliberately, would provide the countryside with a fair amount of cats, but as I have said before, we cannot dismiss the possibility that other cats roam the counties when in the past felids such as jungle cats and leopards cats have been killed on the roads. Certainly, some reports in Kent suggest species of felid away from the usual reported cats, but across Britain there are many cats reported too casually and taken for granted in the sense that possible populations of golden cat, caracal etc, are ignored simply because infrequent reports of them are not taken seriously or do not seem to fit in with that particular areas activity. However, as mentioned before, whilst black leopard and puma reports can filter it at an extraordinary rate, reports of smaller exotic can be pretty much one a year, but unless that particular case is looked in to adequately, such a cat cannot be identified.
There is no consistency with regards to reports of the normal spotted leopard or the jaguar in Britain, but again, people are never quite sure what they are seeing or obtaining. The jaguar, according to wild cat author C.A.W. Guggisberg, was once considered the ‘panther’ in Venezuela during the 1500s, simply because the witness who described these great cats, Amerigo Vespucci, had observed incorrectly simply like everyday eye-witnesses do.
The jaguar is a powerful animal, with a large head that houses the strongest teeth of all the cats. The main difference between the jaguar and the leopard is the fact that the jaguar (panthera onca) is a very heavy set animal, its head is more rounded, has massive limbs albeit short and a tail not usually longer than about one-third of head and body. The jaguar can appear reddish-yellow, pale buff with black spots on the head, neck and limbs with large black blotches on its under parts. On the shoulders, flanks and back of the jaguar spots form into large rosettes which have within them one or several dots, whilst on the back of the great cat elongated black spots run in a row.

Jaguar coat (left) Leopard coat (right)

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