Do Panthers Scream?  Coming Face to Face with the Eastern Cougar Phenomenon

Credit: sacandagalife.com Caption: This is what the western subspecies of cougar, the one familiar to most people, looks like.

Credit: sacandagalife.com
Caption: The iconic image of a western subspecies of cougar

By Luke Manget

I remember well the noise that I heard that summer day in 2003 as I hiked down the Jacks River trail in north-central Georgia.  It sounded like a cat’s scream, like a Bengal tiger’s scream straight from a David Attenborough nature special.  There was a loud, hissing roar that quickly turned into a snarling growl.  I froze and turned to my brother, whose look of disbelief, terror, and curiosity conveyed my emotions exactly.  We never caught a glimpse of the animal, but we heard something move fast away from us up the mountain side, and after a few moments of stunned silence, we cautiously resumed our stroll.

For many months I was convinced that we had heard a panther.  It was certainly a cat-like ‘scream,’ and it sounded too big, too hair-raising to come from a bobcat.  But the more I looked into the possibility of me hearing the big cat, the more I began to wonder.  I could not even determine if they existed at all in the eastern U.S.  My friends around Murphy and Hayesville, North Carolina, some of whom claimed similar experiences as mine, were convinced that there were “painters” in the mountains.  Nearly everyone claimed to at least know someone who had encountered a panther.  Yet, the biologists with whom I spoke were decidedly more skeptical.

Thirty years ago, there were many biologists who believed that the eastern cougar still roamed the deep mountain fastnesses of the east, primarily because they believed that there was enough wild space in the southern Appalachians to support a reproducing population, but recent searches conducted by federal and state wildlife agencies, as well as numerous advocacy groups, have turned up empty.  After an extensive review of available studies and eyewitness accounts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark McCulloch concluded in 2011 that there are no longer any reproducing populations of panthers in the east outside of Florida.  Just two months ago, the USFWS removed the Eastern Cougar, puma concolor cougar, from the endangered species list, and it was not for the good reason.

So if the panthers are all gone, why do people keep claiming to see or hear them?  Every year a few credible reports trickle in from across the Eastern U.S.  McCulloch says that most are cases of mistaken identity. People are confusing them with dogs, bears, bobcats, and large house cats, he argues, and their scream with the sounds of foxes and owls.  He acknowledges that there might be some genuine encounters with panthers, but he believes that the cats involved are likely escaped pets.

Credit: State Museum of Pennsylvania Caption: This stuffed eastern cougar is believed to be the last of its kind killed in Pennsylvania in 1874.

Credit: State Museum of Pennsylvania
Caption: This stuffed eastern cougar is believed to be the last of its kind killed in Pennsylvania in 1874.

Mistaken identity can only partly explain what he terms the ‘eastern cougar phenomenon.’  Why are so many people convinced that they’ve seen or heard the big cat when in reality it was likely a bird?  Many writers have offered their take.  Biologist Gerry Parker has theorized that the sightings might have something to do with a collective sense of guilt at mankind’s destruction of the environment.[1]  Chris Bolgiano, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the eastern panther phenomenon, has suggested that panther sightings are probably a “cultural projection” or perhapsa reflection of something deeper than culture, “a primal expression of the human understanding of nature.”[2]  Naturalist Scott Weidensaul believes that accepting the extinction of the panther diminishes the world.  “Deep down in our overcivilized hearts,” he writes, “we need the world to be bigger, and more mysterious, and more exciting than it appears to be in the cold light of day—especially in this age, when the planet shrinks daily and no place seems truly remote or unknown.”[3]

Credit: Robert Galbraith Caption: This cougar was killed in Quebec some years ago. The last known cougar killed in Quebec was in 1938.

Credit: Robert Galbraith
Caption: This cougar was killed in Quebec some years ago. The last known cougar killed in Quebec was in 1938.

Just to make things even more complicated, even if perhaps a few isolated individual panthers survived the the deforestation, the tourists, the cars, and the hunters of the past 100 years, no one really knows if the eastern cougar screams (or screamed—if you prefer the past tense).  While biologists can examine the skulls and preserved specimens, it is next to impossible to know what sounds the creature made without direct observation.  And here’s the thing: nineteenth-century observers, the last people that really had the chance to make such an observation, could not agree on this simple question.

According to many Romantics of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, panthers most certainly did scream, and writers like James Fennimore Cooper and Charles Brockden Brown traded in sublime fantasies based on the fact that it did so.  Panthers appeared in these literary works as fiendish maneaters, willing and able to attack humans at any time, particularly at night.  Their scream was often the first hint that a panther was stalking them.  Although stripped of much of its meaning in the 21st century, the word “sublime” in the early 19th evoked an exhilarating feeling of terror and powerlessness in the face of omnipotent Nature.  Whereas the term had been traditionally used in a Christian context to describe the feeling of an encounter with God, consumers of romantic literature found the sublime in the deep wilderness, in raging waterfalls, threatening storms, and anything else that demonstrated nature’s power.  Panthers served a role in generating this positive emotion by giving the deep woods teeth.

However, it was only a positive feeling if the person feeling it did not fear for his/her life.  Thus, the panther was desirable only insofar as it remained in the background, lending only its terrible scream to the evening atmosphere.  In his popular The Adirondack, or Life in the Woods, Joel T. Headley wrote that the “shrill scream of a panther in the midst of an impenetrable swamp, rising in the intervals of thunder claps…, you may call strange music; yet there are certain chords in the heart of man, that quiver to it, especially when he feels there is no cause of alarm.”[4]  For most seekers of the sublime, hearing a panther scream was as close as they wanted to get to the animal.  It was proof that they were beyond the boundaries of civilization, ready to feel the wilderness but without the eminent danger of an encounter.

Credit: Penn State All-Sports Museum Caption: The Penn State Nittany Lion is believed to be an eastern cougar killed in the 1850s in Pennsylvania.

Credit: Penn State All-Sports Museum
Caption: The Penn State Nittany Lion is believed to be an eastern cougar killed in the 1850s in Pennsylvania.

Observers called the panther’s vocalizations yells, cries, screeches, howls, yowls, and wails, but scream was the most commonly used term.  Some described the sound as resembling a child in distress.[5]  Others compared it to a woman’s scream.[6] One said it sounded like “a woman having her throat cut with a dull knife.”[7]  While descriptions varied, those who commented on it all agreed that it had a profound impact on them.  Upon hearing the big cat scream one evening, Joel Headley felt as if “struck by a sudden blow… You have heard of electrical shocks, galvanic batteries, etc.—well, their effects are mere slight nervous stimulants compared to the wild, unearthly screech of a catamount at night in the woods.”[8]   Another writer remembered that hearing his first scream sent him into a “blue funk,” as “The forest shades became peopled with crouching, slinking forms, with baleful eyes and glistening teeth.”[9]

By the 1850s, prominent biologists and outdoorsmen had begun to question the idea that a panther could scream at all.   John James Audubon doubted it, and C. Hart Merriam, the preeminent mammologist of his day, flat out denied it.  “I have yet to meet the man, whose statements on this point are of any value, that has ever heard a wild Panther scream,” he wrote, estimating that ninety-nine percent of so-called panther screams came from a “widely different source.”[10]  A host of writers chimed in on this debate, many of whom agreed with Merriam and had good reason to doubt the stories of screams.   E. N. Woodcock, who wrote about his lifetime hunting and trapping in the Pennsylvania Alleghenies, the Southern Appalachians, and the Rocky Mountains in Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper, believed the panther scream “to be all imagination.”[11]  He never met a hunter that had ever heard the sound, and he recalled that the only sound he ever suspected of being the big cat turned out to be an owl.  That was the case with David Strother as well.  He and his hunting companions hunkered down with guns cocked when they heard a scream, but it also turned out to be an owl. [12]  At least a dozen outdoorsmen wrote letters to the editor of Forest and Stream throughout the fall and winter of 1892-1893, debating whether or not the panther could scream.  While the skeptics held their own, they faced a withering barrage of stories from people who claimed to have heard it.[13]

Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Canadian author Bruce Wright poses with what is believed to be one of the last eastern cougars (puma concolor cougar) killed.

Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Canadian author Bruce Wright poses with what is believed to be one of the last eastern cougars (puma concolor cougar) killed.

With all these conflicting voices, it is hard to determine whether the Eastern Cougar actually made a sound that could be described as a scream.  So why does it really matter?  Historically speaking, the real answer is less interesting than the debate itself.  I personally think that it probably did scream, although rarely.  What this discussion reveals is that even in the nineteenth century, the panther remained unknown to even the most knowledgeable of people.  Its image was so shrouded in myth and legend that it is difficult to learn much about them.  It was this mysteriousness that has contributed to the eastern cougar phenomenon over the past one hundred years.

I have to admit that I was more than a bit disappointed by the idea that what I heard was either a barn owl, a gray fox, a bobcat, or an escapee from someone’s menagerie. I wanted that sound I heard on the Jacks River to be a panther, a genuine, wild panther.  For a few years, I marveled at the idea that in the heavily populated eastern United States, there were still woods deep enough to harbor such a wild and dangerous beast.  It was, for some weird reason, a comforting idea to me.  I agree with Weidensaul that there is something exciting in the fact that science cannot explain everything, that there are places nearby where the scrutinizing gaze of humankind cannot penetrate.  The panther embodies that ideal more than any other animal.  The panther is, above all, a symbol of wildness.  But, alas, the eastern cougar and the wildness it represents is no more.

[1] Gerry Parker, The Eastern Panther: Mystery Cat of the Appalachians (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Co., 1998).

[2] Chris Bolgiano, Mountain Lion: an Unnatural History of Pumas and People (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995),168; see also Bolgiano and Jerry Roberts, eds., The Eastern Cougar: Historic Accounts, Scientific Investigations, New Evidence (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005).

[3] Scott Weidensaul, The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species (New York: North Point Press, 2003).

[4] Joel T. Headley, The Adirondack: or Life in the Woods (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, &Co., 1875 [originally published 1848]), 196.

[5] “Merry’s Adventures,” Robert Merry’s Museum, January-June 1842; [H], “Life and Scenes in the Backwoods,” New York Evangelist, July 9, 1846.

[6] J. G. Rich, “The Panther’s Scream,” Forest and Stream, August 2, 1888.

[7] Samuel Scoville, “Wood-Folk,” The North American Review, May 1931.

[8] Ibid, 91.

[9] [Arefar], “The Panther’s Scream,” Forest and Stream, November 3, 1892.

[10] Merriam, The Mammals of the Adirondack Region, 38.

[11] E. N. Woodcock, Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper: Experiences and Observations of E. N. Woodcock, the noted Hunter and Trapper, as Written by Himself and Published in H-T-T from 1903 to 1913 (St. Louis: A. R. Harding, 1913), 245.

[12] Strother’s, “The Virginia Canaan,” as reprinted in Clarence Gohdes, ed., “Hunting in the Old South: Original Narratives of the Hunters,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 1965), 104.  

[13] See, for example, [Jacobstaff], “Another Panther Experience,” Forest and Stream, 22 December 1892; [Stanstead], “An Interview with a Panther,” Forest and Stream, 6 October 1892; [Mississippi Lowlands], “He Saw them Scream,” Forest and Stream, 27 October 1892. [Arefar], “The Panther’s Scream” Forest and Stream, 3 November 1892.

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