The Eastern Cougar in North Carolina
Are There Still Cougars in North Carolina?
The Eastern Cougar, according to North Carolina Wildlife Profiles was extirpated throughout North Carolina by 1900. But ask witnesses in Northeast North Carolina and they will tell you the cougar is still calling the Tarheel State home. Several witnesses have reported seeing both the usual tawny cat and a black version locally referred to as black panthers. Witnesses I talked with describe the cat as big, long, swift, and as having a long tail, distinguishing it from the well known bobcat.
Black Panthers have been a part of North Carolina wildlife lore for many years. Melanism, black coloration phases, occur in other feline species, and although none have been documented in the cougar species one wonders why it is not possible? Other possibilities suggest black jaguars or leopards, which might have strayed north from Central America or escaped from private owners. In any case, the cougar in North Carolina is considered an endangered and threatened species and are protected as such.
Do Not Shoot the Non-Existent Cats
Cougars are known by several names: puma, panther, mountain lion, painter, and wildcat. Though they are officially classed as small cats the average weight of a male cougar is 150 pounds. Most are a tawny color with brown points and a white underbelly. The eastern cougar requires around a twenty-five square mile range and will adapt to almost any terrain. They are carnivorous and prey on anything from deer to groundhogs, hunting mainly from the ground.
They are solitary animals except at breeding time. Their gestation period is ninety-one days. A female usually raises a litter every two years. A litter can consist of up to six cubs but average two per litter. They stay with the mother until they are two years old. While only one per litter usually survives to become an adult, those that survive have a life expectancy of about ten years.
The North Carolina Wildlife Profiles states that if anyone has indeed seen a cougar it was likely a “pet” that was released into the wild, and what people are reporting to be black panthers are probably bears or bobcats.
It is illegal to shoot the non-existent cougar in North Carolina. In 1987 a local hunter was fined for shooting two cougars in Tyrrell County. The cougars were hanging around a rural dumpster. Authorities explained those cougars had been pets and the owner released them into the wild once they got too big to handle. In any case, cougars are protected in our state.
Cougar Sightings in Washington County
Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Bertie Counties in Northeast North Carolina have had a good share of cougar and black panther sightings.
Jimmy Davis, a Washington County resident, saw a black panther twice within three days in the same area. It was about 4PM in September 2011 the first time Davis saw the black cat. He was on Jerdan Thicket Road driving about 45 mph when it crossed the road in front of him. He said he slowed down, the cat stopped and looked at him, then it jumped from the shoulder of the road across a wide ditch and disappeared into the woods. He said the cat was about 4 ½ feet long with a tail almost as long. Its ears were turned down and he saw a flash of white on its face, which he said could have been glare or maybe a marking.
Davis was taking a walk after doing some gardening on a dirt road alongside the woods the second time he saw the big cat. It came out of the woods in front of him and jumped across the path and the ditch in one leap then faded into the woods.
Davis grew up in the rural area surrounding Long Ridge and Hollis Roads near Plymouth, North Carolina. He knows for a fact what he saw in September 2011 was neither a bear or a bobcat. “I know what I saw,” he said.
Sandra Lee also saw what she describes as a black panther several years ago on Hollis Rd. It was dusk and she was turning onto Hollis Road from Hwy 32, going to visit a friend. The panther walked out onto the road as she was turning.
She said, “It just walked at a relatively slow pace for some time, while I was behind him, trying to figure out what in the heck it was. I knew it was some kind of cat because it had a long tail, and moved like a cat, but it was so large!”
The cougar’s cry has sometimes been described as sounding like a woman screaming. Gail Harrison Hodges of Washington County believes she heard that scream when she was a child. Her mother had taken the children to a field on their farm to chop weeds. The sound was scary enough that her mother sent them running for cover in the car. “I can still hear that sound, unlike anything I have ever heard.”
Gail said her late husband had a sighting on a Weyerhaeuser logging road off Hollis Road near where it joins Long Ridge Road. It was at twilight. She says he was very specific about the fact that it was a black panther.
Cougar Sighting Near Pungo Lake
Claude Edward Jones, who grew up in Plymouth and now lives in Beaufort County, shares his cougar story:
“I was goose hunting on some land in Wenona. Having no luck, we decided to drive over to the Lake to view the birds. It was getting late and we knew we had to leave before dark. We were traveling down D Canal Road very slow because it was very wet and narrow. We were traveling south towards 43, when out of the brush, on the vehicle driver side, this huge black cat, not a house cat and not a bear, quickly leaped in front of us, then crossed the road, and disappeared into the trees that bordered the canal on the passenger side. I couldn't believe my eyes!”
Bertie and Tyrrell County Cougar Sightings
Alfred Smith, a Washington County native says he has seen cougars in Bertie, Washington, and Tyrrell counties over the past twenty years.
“In about 1997 we were leaving Roper to go to Belhaven one evening. It was after sundown but not dark because I did not have my headlights on. It was in the earl spring. We had just turned off of Millpond Road onto the Railroad Bed. There is or was a pasture on the left-hand side of this road not far from the turnoff. A big cat came out of the pasture about 100 yards down the road. I was driving about 45 or 50 mph and slowed down. The cougar did not seem to be in any hurry crossing the road. It was about 5 feet long with a tail that was 4 or 5 feet long that stuck straight out behind it. As it disappeared into the brush on the right-hand side of the road another cat about the same size came from the pasture following the first one. This cat was solid black and was moving much faster than the first on but we were much closer to it when we saw it.”
Smith had another sighting about the same period of time, 1996 to 1998. He was deer hunting with a friend early one morning in November in Bertie County on a track of land owned by Weyerhaeuser Paper Mill. It was early morning and they were walking along a canal bank to get to their stand. A cougar jumped the 15-foot wide canal and landed in the trail about 100 feet ahead of them. He described the cat as about 5 feet long and with a tail that was four or five feet long. He said it never made a sound as it came and was gone in an instant, but he has no doubt about what they saw.
Another incident happened late one evening while Alfred Smith was coming back from playing golf in Windsor. He was driving along highway 308 just east of the San Sucie Road in Bertie County when he saw a big cat sitting beside the road.
“Just sitting there like a dog would sit. At first, I thought it was a wounded deer that had maybe been hit by a car or something.”
He slammed on breaks to stop and the cat took one leap across the shoulder of the road and the road ditch and into the woods. Smith estimated the cat jumped 30 to 40 feet with one bound from a sitting position. The cat looked to be at least 6 feet long when stretched out plus at least a five-foot tail.
Smith said, “Talking with friends who I worked with and people who drive this road regularly say the cat has been spotted several times along 308 in this area.”
Sighting Location of Cougar in Washington County near Plymouth, NC
While there are many reports of cougars in North Carolina, word alone is not enough to convince wildlife officials. They need “proof” to be convinced. Physical evidence or even credible photographs have yet to be produced to back up the stories. There are some signs to look for that may suggest the presence of a cougar. They are scrape marks which are left by males scraping together a pile of leaves or debris and then urinating or defecating on it to mark his territory, tracks, feces, tree scratches, and hidden food caches such as a deer carcass. If you have a camera handy photograph any sign you come across so it can be verified later. Of course, a photograph of the actual cat would help substantiate your sighting, although in this age of digital photo editing, even a picture may not be convincing enough.
I have loved reading your comments about your cougar sightings. Report your sightings to your state wild life agency as well. NC Wildlife Commission's website has their contact info. If enough folks let them know where they've seen one of the big cats they can investigate and find out there just might be a larger population than they've previously realized.
© 2012 Donna Campbell Smith