Friday, October 29, 2010

Behold, I Show You a Mystery

Last night, we took the boys down to the Jacksonville Zoo for their big "Spooktacular" Halloween event. It was a lot of fun for the kiddos, but most of the attraction had nothing to do with the zoo itself. Staff members handed out candy at stations along the way and the pathway was lighted appropriately for the holiday. We did see a few animals, however. The highlight of the night was watching one of these guys (a black Jaguar) investigate a pumpkin in the pool area of his habitat. 

What I noticed from those around me is that this black Jaguar was continually referred to as a black panther, like Bagheera in the Jungle Book. But here's the thing, there is no such thing as a black panther - at least according to the experts. What is known as a black panther is the black Jaguar pictured above. What is called a "panther" is actually a cougar or smaller version of a mountain lion (Florida Panther pictured below).
According to studies, there are fewer than 100 panthers in Florida and most of them are all near the everglades, but I'm pretty sure that I could come up with 100 people in the North Florida area who claim to have seen one in the wild. Perhaps there are more than estimated and they could be more widespread. That can be understood, but what is strange is that out of every sighting that I know of no one has seen the cat in the picture below but the one in the picture above. Here is the explanation given: What people are seeing is actually a black bobcat which they think is a panther. One problem: as evident in the name the bobcat has a very short tail, the panther does not and those I ask are quick to assure me that the cat they saw had a long tail. Claims of black panther sightings are common in North Florida, Middle Georgia, and throughout the Southeast. I remember being with my grandfather in a rural area as a young boy and seeing something dart across the road in front of us. He told me it was a black panther. My parents, my father in law, and my wife all claim to have seen one. In fact, my wife had a rather close encounter with one, the thought of which still gives her chills. So at the zoo watching the black Jaguar I began to ask her if - but before I could finish my question she said, "Yes, that is what I saw."

So what are people seeing? The Florida Panther can sometimes be darker in color, but there is no evidence (that I am aware of) of a black cougar. Are there Jaguars roaming the southeastern United States? Or is the black panther merely a legend with scores of undocumented sightings like the Sasquatch? This mystery has perplexed me for a long time. In the meantime, check out the videos below.