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.
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.
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.
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.