Arkansas and Tennessee Cryptids

Weird, wild stuff

Calls about odd animal sightings keep conservation officials busy

By Bryan Brasher
Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 14, 2007

Officials from the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission chuckled in 2003 when they received word that an octopus had been found on Lake Conway.

But after traveling to the lake and inspecting the lifeless, eight-legged carcass, they began referring to the creature as their "state-record octopus."

Late last summer, conservation officials in Tennessee were more than a little skeptical when they began hearing reports of a manatee roaming the Memphis portions of the Mississippi River.

Then the video came in, and they knew it was the real thing.

For as long as state conservation agencies have had working telephones, they’ve been receiving calls from people claiming to have seen weird, wild critters prowling the Mid-South wilderness.

It’s the officials’ job to distinguish between fact and pure fantasy — and it isn’t always easy.

"I’d say about 80 percent of those calls eventually turn out to be nothing," said Alan Peterson of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "People see an animal and mistake it for something else, or they catch a glimpse of something and make a quick assumption about what it might have been. But every now and then, we get a call from someone with enough evidence to warrant an investigation."

The infamous ‘black panther’

Outside his office in Jackson, Peterson keeps a map of west Tennessee that’s decorated with hundreds of multi-colored dots. Some of the dots represent bear sightings. Others are for "tan panther" sightings, and still others mark reported sightings of "black panthers."

Black panther sightings outnumber the others by more than a 2-1 ratio.

Trouble is, there’s no such thing as a black panther.

"Never in history has there been any evidence of a so-called black panther or black cougar," Peterson said. "There has never been one killed, captured or even photographed anywhere in the world. But when someone calls in claiming to have seen a black panther in west Tennessee, you can’t talk them out of it. They’re usually convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that’s what they’ve seen."

Peterson said many animals could be responsible for the so-called black panther sightings, including large dogs, bobcats, coyotes and even river otters. He used to tell callers to shoot the animal and bring in its carcass for proof. But after inspecting the carcasses of two large, black house cats, he decided that wasn’t the best idea.

Now when he gets a call from someone claiming to have seen a large cat — tan or black — he recommends a less destructive approach. He urges the caller to get photos or video of the animal or to make plaster casts of its footprints.

"For about $1.25 at Wal-Mart, you can get plaster of Paris and make a perfect imprint of the tracks that will last for years," Peterson said. "We can tell right away what we’re dealing with by looking at those casts."

They usually turn out to be nothing.

"I’ve looked at hundreds of supposed cougar or panther tracks through the years," Peterson said. "Almost every one of them has turned out to be nothing more than a dog track."

Surprisingly, Peterson said, most of the calls he receives about large, predatory cats in west Tennessee come from urban and suburban Memphis.

"I would never call anyone a liar or make light of any phone call that we’ve received," Peterson said. "But think about it: If you were a large cat that feeds mainly on whitetail deer, would you be hanging out in downtown Memphis or out in the woods somewhere? The fact that most of those calls come from urban areas suggests to me that people are seeing something besides panthers or cougars."

Unlike the mythical black panther, large, tan-colored cats known as mountain lions or eastern cougars really do exist. But there is no evidence of such cats anywhere in Tennessee.

Mountain Lion

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Alleged sightings of mountain lions like this one have been reported across Arkansas and Tennessee for years. A few sightings have been verified in Arkansas, but no viable breeding population exists. No predatory cat sighting has been verified in Tennessee.

Likewise, bears are not present in west Tennessee — though one wayward black bear was found in the region last summer. Reported sightings of that animal still form a tight pattern on Peterson’s map.

Peterson has also gotten valid calls through the years from people who have actually discovered emus, elk, pythons and anacondas. Those animals, he said, were escapees from zoos, farms or cages where they were being kept as pets.

Arkansas mountain lions — really

Officials from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks said they receive the black panther call almost daily, but none have been discovered.

AGFC officials also get hundreds of calls each year from people claiming to have seen large, black cats. Those calls are taken with a grain of salt — but when a call comes in about a tan cat or mountain lion in Arkansas, it’s treated more seriously.

During the past few years, there have been numerous validated sightings of mountain lions in Arkansas — so many that a professional trapper was called in from Texas in 2004 to determine whether the state had a viable breeding population.

No sustainable population was found, and it is believed the sightings were of domesticated cats illegally released into the wild. New laws are now in place in Arkansas that outline stringent housing provisions for captive mountain lions.

Still, the sightings continue.

Arkansas officials have also received calls through the years about wolves running roughshod through downtown Little Rock and the infamous octopus flexing its tentacles on Lake Conway.

The wolf turned out to be a simple case of mistaken identity — just someone crying wolf.

The octopus was real — it was found clinging to the lake’s dam by Illinois fisherman John Mazurek Sr. — but it was most likely discarded by an aquarium owner.

If you see something

Despite receiving so many calls that turn out to be nothing, state conservation officials don’t discourage people from calling — but be warned, they won’t just take your word for it when you report seeing something strange.

To prompt an investigation, you’ll have to have some sort of tangible proof.

"If someone has a photograph, video footage, plaster cast of the animal’s tracks, a hair sample or just anything we can go on, we’d definitely be more inclined to come out and take a look," Peterson said. "But because we get so many calls, we simply don’t have the manpower to look into them all.

"If someone calls in and says ‘I saw it,’ that’s just not enough."

UNUSUAL WILDLIFE SIGHTINGS

Strange, but true

Mountain Lion: Though no viable breeding populations have been found in the Mid-South, scattered sightings have been confirmed during the past few years in Arkansas. Most are believed to be cats that were kept as pets and released — either accidentally or intentionally.

Octopus: Believe it or not, a dead octopus was found in 2003 on Arkansas’ Lake Conway. Obviously, it had to have been thrown into the water by a lake visitor.

Pythons and anacondas: These large tropical snakes, which are often kept as pets, sometimes escape into the wild. However, they can’t tolerate Mid-South winters and usually perish with the first big cold snap.

Mistaken Identity

Wolves: Officials in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi have received reports of wolves prowling urban and suburban areas. The animals usually turn out to be coyotes or some sort of hybrid canine.

Black panthers: One of the most common calls in all three states is from people claiming to have seen large "black cats." There has never been any solid evidence to help confirm such a sighting, and it is believed that people are actually seeing large bobcats, dark-colored wild dogs or some other relatively harmless critter.

Way, way out there

Bigfoot: In 2001, AGFC officials received a phone call from a man who claimed to have found a "Bigfoot family" living in the Ouachita Mountains. Though such a discovery would be earth-shattering, they suspect the call was generated more by moonshine than by an actual sighting.

Hmmm, I guess that the AGFC (Arkansas Game & Fish Commission) has never heard of the Fouke Monster.

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

Leave a Reply

  1. Very informative as always Craig. On the Fouke Monster, I believe Faux Monster would be a more appropriate name. LOL

  2. hey craig this is very informative about tn & arkansas cryptids. im sure you will start getting more people reporting more sightings & evidence etc of these cryptids this year to you. very interesting. thanks bill

  3. Good morning Cryptos….from my frozen Tundra in Tulsa.

    I have seen “black panthers”, “black bears” and a sasquatch or two numerous times over my thirty-five years in the Oklahoma oilpatch…it never occured to me to kill a voucher specimen for science then…nor would it today.

    live and let live…

    ole bub and the dawgs

  4. I’m sure the directive to shoot a black panther for proof was more tongue in cheek than anything; I can’t imagine killing such a beautiful and rare cat.

    As I have explained before, I have witnessed a black panther close up and with my experience in the woods not even necessary at such close range, I’m sure of that ID.

  5. It’s become quite predictable that state game officials continue the “party line” that mountain lions/cougars don’t exist in their state. The same story played out here in Nebraska for years, until a cougar discovered near an elementary school was destroyed by police. As for the cats spotted in suburbs, on October 2, 2003, a wild cougar was discovered in Omaha. The male lion was captured not far from 114th Street and West Dodge Road – the busiest intersection in Omaha – after Henry Doorly Zoo Director Lee Simmons shot the animal in the shoulder with a tranquilizer dart.

  6. About those so-called “mythical black panthers” in Arkansas.

    As a 12-year old in 1952, in rural Arkansas, eight miles southwest of Little Rock, a friend and I were walking over Ellis Mountain Road, between Lawson Road and what is now Col. Glenn Road (then the Upper Hot Springs Highway), when a large black feline, larger than any German shepherd dog we had ever seen, bounded from the woods on one side of the road, ran across the road and into the woods on the other side.

    Because the critter weighed probably more than either of us, we were absolutely terrified and frozen in place, and grateful that we had not been attacked.

    Local adults and our parents believed us because others had seen and reported such animals as “black panthers” for years in Central Arkansas.

    It was only in the last decade or so that I have been reading — with much amusement — that black panthers do not exist.

    That flat statement always reminded me of the claims, years back, that ball lightning also didn’t exist — when I had had a childhood experience with it.

    So, don’t be too quick to dismiss what people report; some kind of truth may be lurking in those old musty records.

  7. Attacks by Catamounts are very rare. They usually occur when they are either startled or starving and even then its a freak occurence. Perhaps the only chance they have to survive in the wilds of the Eastern United States is for them not to be recognized by the government as an existing species in these areas. God knows man would extinguish like all the other large predators who once thrived in these areas.

  8. Anything the AR G&F Commission might say would be meaningless. A fountain of knowledge they ain’t. Regardless of what they say or think, there is one female cougar that had three cubs this spring and she and the kittens are doing fine. The last time the family was seen they were eating road-kill exactly 22.4 miles (by GPS) nearly due west of the G & F Commission’s headquarters in Little Rock. Locals told 2 wardens about the cats, but I suppose it was too far for the biologists to drive to check on them. You got to know the history of that bunch to appreciate them.

  9. In southeast Oklahoma big cats are more or less accepted as living among us. Where I grew up the outskirts of town was (and still is) called “catcity” due to what the old timers called panthers.

    Here in McCurtain county Oklahoma we have sightings often; both of the standard tan mountain lion kind (which I’ve personally seen) and the “black panther” variety.

  10. Hiya cryptofans, long time lurker first time poster here.

    As a long time resident of TN, I grew up hearing the stories of the dreaded black panther from a boy who lived near my parents farm. We always dismissed it as the talk of drunken hillbillies, and I didn’t give it a thought for about 18 years till one night at work a friend of mine mentioned that he had heard rumors of large black cats as well. That got me to thinking, but what got me more was about a week later, another guy I work with actually admitted to seeing one as he was driving home from work the night before. I believe that he is a credible witness and he is definitely not the type to make things up to get attention. He is also very familiar with the local wildlife and would be able to distinguish a black leopard or cougar from say, a melanistic bobcat.

    Is it possible that maybe some sort of leopard is migrating up from South America the same way that the mountain lion is migrating back into some of its old ranges? Not long ago a black bear was killed almost right in my back yard and we are a long way from known black bear territory, not to mention that I live right in the middle of town.

    Sorry for the long post, this topic just has been in my thoughts quite a bit recently.

    Thanks all.

  11. Just throwing this out there for consideration- Could it be that most black panther reports come from urban and suburban areas because most people live in urban and suburban areas, and therefore there are more people there to see them?

  12. I also love them saying that there are no bears in the state…oh, except for that one we found last year. Umm…duh?

  13. Black panthers may not exist, but remember that a lot of the people who make these sightings are not going to know that. To them what they see is going to be described as the first word for a large black feline that comes to mind and this happens to be the misnomer “black panther”. I don’t think we can write off what they saw because of semantics. It is possible that they saw a black leopard or a black jaguar, which do exist and they simply called it a black panther because they didn’t know any better. In other words, just because there are no black panthers does not mean that people aren’t seeing large black felines. Where they came from, that is another story. Possibly they wandered far out of their range from South or Central America? Escaped exotics pets? There are so many reports that I am intrigued by what is actually going on there to cause them. I find it hard to believe that, say, large black dogs could be mistaken for felines by so many people. Also, if all the reports were driven by moonshine, why make the stories about black cats of all things, and not UFO’s, etc? I feel there is most likely some grain of truth to these reports.

  14. There is another large black animal that should be considered a cryptid that could be the source of some of these southern sightings, the Red Wolf.

    The Red Wolf, which is now called Canis rufus, was once called Canis niger – Black Wolf. At one time people thought that the black animal was a separate species, but it was found that the “red” phase and the black phase could occur in the same litter. These animals are native to the southeastern to south-central United States. The black phase was inky black, not grizzled with gray like black-colored Gray Wolves are.

    Red wolves are about the size of a German Shepherd Dog, and their coat is much shorter, and more harsh-textured and sleek than Gray Woves’ coats. Red Wolves are about a third smaller than Gray Wolves and they are more slender. They move silently and gracefully, and they are very secretive animals which are quite at home in dense cover. The black phase was common in the Mississippi Valley. Red Wolves have been declared extinct in the wild (except for animals recently reintroduced from a captive breeding program). Because no black pups have been born to any of the 200 or so animals that are left, the black phase is thought to be truly extinct.

    But what if it isn’t? Could there still be black wolves in the American South? Even in the red color phase, coat color is variable, and many animals have a lot of black sabling in their fur, giving them almost a charcoal body color.

    They could be mistaken for a large cat at a glance. I know it isn’t likely, but they ARE native to the area.

  15. Recently we saw credible pictures of a black lynx on this web site. That, too, is an impossibility I understand. What I don’t get is why we are so darned sure that black cougars can’t exist. Is there some natural law I’m missing here? Is it written in some sacred stone that I don’t know about? Why can’t there be black cougars?

    Perhaps, they are relatively rare, or perhaps there’s something in the genes that makes them naturally more wary of man or more reclusive. Maybe they are just smarter than your average cat.

  16. Nobody is certain that black pumas (or cougars, if you prefer) don’t exist. There are no known specimens of black pumas, living or dead, but there HAVE been reports of them. In researching these reports intensely, they all seem to be second-hand or anecdotal accounts. The only photo that I know of that purports to show a “black” puma is an old, poor quality, black-and-white photo of a dead one hanging from a tree beside the hunter who shot it, that was taken around the turn of the last century, and it obviously shows an animal that is not black.

    Pumas from Central America and from the Amazon region tend to be a darker color than North American pumas, but they are a bright tawny reddish-brown color, not black.

    I think that black pumas probably DO occur from time to time. That is my personal opinion unsubstantiated by any evidence, but based on the certain knowledge that black animals occur in almost every species of cat (although in some species there has never been a confirmed black individual). I doubt that they are common but it could be that, given the extremely fragmented populations of eastern pumas, black animals may be the norm rather than the exception in some isolated areas.

    Perhaps they are out there. We just do not know.

  17. Hi guys, I’ve been reading stuff here on the site for some time now, but until now have not felt compelled to leave any comments of my own.

    Firstly let me state that I can see no reason why mountain lions (cougars) could not be living in Arkansas. I lived in north Louisiana for several years as a child and there were definitely cougars living there. In fact my father killed one that had been attacking our pets.

    Anyway the real reason for my post was that this article reminded me of a story my father told me when I was much younger about how he used to go hunting as a kid in the woods in central Louisiana. He told me that when he was about 13-14 years old one night he was sleeping in a hammock up in a tree, like he had done countless times before. Sometime right before sunrise, as the light was just beginning to rise, he awoke to something rustling beneath him and looked down to see nothing other than a big black cat. He claimed it noticed him, tried to lunge at him, but after he fired his gun at it (missing, unfortunately) it ran off. After telling his story to some of the nearby adults he stated that some of them believed him, and some didn’t saying that “big black cats” weren’t real. This was my first taste of “cryptid” lore as a kid.

    Oh, and I have much more interesting stories about a much more famous cryptid, but those will have to wait until I can sit down with my dad and other members of my family and get the whole story again, since it’s been years since I’ve heard about it.

  18. The very fact that the representative from the Tennessee G&F would say “”Never in history has there been any evidence of a so-called black panther or black cougar,” Peterson said. “There has never been one killed, captured or even photographed anywhere in the world” is laughable and proves without contention that they are either ignorant or choose to conceal knowledge. Black panthers are a well documented species (and photographed) across the world, even Guyana!

    As an Arkansas native and resident, I have been privy to the state’s Game and Fish Commission’s responses. Last year a native mountain lion came into our yard. Prior to that, we have had several experiences with obviously different mountain lions in a 30 mile radius. When the G&F was contacted, they attempted to assure us that cougars were not in Arkansas, and that we had in fact probably seen a bobcat if anything. A bobcat might top the scales at roughly the size of my dog. This cat, as the others, was easily 150-200 pounds. Moreover, anyone worth their salt can tell the difference between a small, tufted eared, spotted, bobtailed cat, and a large, tan, cat with a tail as big around as your upper arm.

    And as for wolves again. The G&F maintains that only the red wolf has ever been native, and is now nearing extinction. The truth is, that North Central Arkansas has several, viable packs, one of which resides in our own town.