State: It’s illegal to shoot large cats

by Wes Mayer

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There is no such animal as a “black panther.” The animal most people think of when they hear “black panther” is either a melanistic jaguar, pictured, or a melanistic leopard. This photo was taken in 2006 at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb. 


It is unfortunate the most recent sighting of a large cat in Coweta County involved a fatal attack on a couple’s pet dog, but the public should keep in mind that shooting any large cat is a misdemeanor crime, say state officials.

“[A Florida panther] is not a game animal,” said Ranger First Class Travis Sweat with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “You can’t hunt one, and there is no season for them. But we usually don’t have them up here.”

A Florida panther may have been the animal that attacked Josephine Young’s dog, Max, Tuesday morning near her Coweta County home. Around 6:30 a.m., Young was walking Max, her five-pound Miniature-Pinscher, on a trail near her home off Smokey Road south of Newnan when the wild animal attacked.

Young said the animal was a large, shiny, black cat with a long tail, maybe five to six feet in length, and it leapt through the air to jump on Max. The animal carried Max into the woods, possibly into a tree, and Young and her husband have not been able to find any evidence of their pet since.

Young called Coweta County Animal Control authorities, who notified the county’s game warden, and officials told her they believed it was most likely a coyote. Young disagreed and is confident it was a large cat, but exactly what kind of cat is still a mystery.

The only large cat native to North America is the cougar (Puma concolor), which has numerous subspecies throughout the Americas. The most common in the U.S. is the North American mountain lion (Puma concolor couguar), which lives west of Texas. However, there is one endangered subspecies that lives in the wild nearby – the Florida panther, which, contrary to its name, is also a cougar (Puma concolor coryi).

Only around 160 Florida panthers are believed to be living in the wild, and their main territory has been reduced to the southern tip of Florida, according to various websites. But in 2008, one was spotted by a Newnan man who was hunting deer in Troup County, and he shot and killed it.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the man was sentenced in 2011 for violating the Endangered Species Act with the “take” – to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct – of an endangered animal. The maximum penalty for the “take” of an animal is one year imprisonment or up to $100,000 in fines.

The Newnan man who shot the Florida panther, however, was sentenced to two years of probation, during which he could not obtain a hunting license anywhere in the U.S., and he was fined $2,000.

Sweat and Jim Ozier, program manager of the Nongame Conservation Section with the Georgia DNR, both said authorities believed the killed Florida panther was in captivity during its lifetime – a few physical details, such as not having worn padding on its feet, stood out. However, it is still possible for Florida panthers to travel into Georgia considering they occasionally travel into middle Florida.

In either case, Florida panthers, like all other species of cougar, are always brown, and Young is certain the cat she saw was black.

In fact, other Cowetans have reported seeing a large, black cat. Lauri Newsome said she and her husband were driving to church last Sunday morning, and on Minix Road near Fischer Road, they saw a large black animal walk across the road.

“It was breathtaking how beautiful, black and shiny its coat was,” she said.

Newsome also described the animal as being very long, and it quickly appeared from the woods on one side of the road and disappeared into the brush on the opposite side.

Another woman said she saw the same or similar animal around six weeks ago on Boy Scout Road while she was out for a walk. She said she saw it, from a distance, leap from the side of the road over the ditch and into the woods. She was hesitant to walk past where she saw the animal, but she had to in order to get home.

When most people think of a large black cat, they think of a “black panther,” but there is actually no such animal as a “black panther.” Instead, people are thinking of either a melanistic jaguar, which natively lives in South America, or a melanistic leopard, which lives in Africa.

Melanism is essentially the opposite of albinism, and is a condition where the body produces more melanin, causing the skin to turn black. A black jaguar is exactly the same as a spotted jaguar except for its skin and fur – about 6 percent of jaguars are black, and most black jaguars’ spots are still visible.

There has never been a documented melanistic cougar or any subspecies, though, authorities say. Ozier said Florida panthers used to be widespread and lived in Georgia around 200 years ago, but even then, there were no recorded sightings of a black Florida panther.

So the big question is – Was a captive black jaguar or black leopard released by someone into the county? Or was this another Florida panther that appeared to be black? Or is this a never-before-seen black Florida panther?

“I’m not going to say it’s not possible,” Sweat said, “and I am not a biologist, but from what I’ve been told a [black Florida panther] does not exist. If it did, it would be the rarest of the rare.”

Or is it another animal?

Young is adamant it was not a coyote, but coyotes are more common in Georgia and can be black. Sweat said coyotes are considered a nuisance animal and may be shot by anyone with a hunting license or if you are on your own property.

Sweat also clarified – if you are in fear for your own life from any animal, even an endangered species like a Florida panther, it is not illegal for you to defend yourself.

* * *

Note: if you have seen any large cats, black or brown, in Coweta County, especially if you have photographic evidence, please contact Times-Herald reporter Wes Mayer at wesley@newnan.com or call 770-253-1576 during weekdays. Photos of tracks are also welcome, but please use some item, preferably a measuring device, to reference the size.



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