Posted by: Craig Woolheater on June 14th, 2007
Morehouse Parish residents — especially those in the northern part of the parish — periodically report seeing big cats, or of hearing their blood-curdling screams in the dark of night.
Whether or not panthers, cougars or some other large cat actually live in Morehouse Parish has been a matter of contention for years. There are true believers and skeptics. State wildlife officials don’t even like to discuss the subject, towing the official line that no evidence exists to support the presence of big cats in the area, but growing increasingly uneasy when pressed on the matter.
The closest thing to an official answer to whether or not big cats actually roam the parish is “possibly.”
“It’s certainly possible,” said Jim Boggs, a biologist and assistant field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lafayette field office.
Boggs helps to oversee species listed as endangered or threatened for the USFWS in Louisiana. As such, he’s quick to point out that if there are big cats in the parish, they’re most likely not Florida panthers — an endangered subspecies of cougar — but rather Texas cougars.
“I could imagine Texas cougars in that area,” Boggs said. “You’ve got cougars in southeast Texas that could possibly travel that far. It wouldn’t be a stretch for a couple to get out of range.”
Boggs said cougars’ extremely large range is what makes it entirely possible some could have moved into the area. He also said growing human population and development in their natural range could push cougars to seek more isolated, sparsely populated areas with an abundant food supply.
“If they’re getting driven out of their range, it’s possible they could extend that range,” Boggs said.
Texas cougars are not considered a threatened species, and thus do not fall under the aegis of the USFWS. Boggs said the chances Florida panthers could make it to the area are extremely small. For one thing, the panthers are only known to breed in the Florida Everglades. For another, too many natural barriers exist for them to get here, though this area was once part of their natural range.
“For a Florida panther, the Mississippi River poses quite a challenge,” Boggs said. “To me, the probability would be small.”
Even if, by some miracle, a Florida panther were to make it to Morehouse Parish, the casual observer wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a Texas cougar. The difference, Boggs said, is purely genetic. Contrary to popular belief, Florida panthers are not black. Furthermore, there is no such species as a “black panther.” There are black big cats, but they are not a separate species. Some big cats have a genetic “defect” known as melanism, an unusually high concentration of black pigmentation in the skin. It’s the same genetic trait that gives us black fox squirrels.
Interestingly, cougars and Florida panthers are not known by biologists to have melanism in their populations. That makes the creature Bonita water clerk Tammi Gardner has periodically seen prowling around her home particularly curious.
Gardner described the cat as “an old momma panther.” She said the people who lived in her home before her also reported seeing the cat. At one time, Gardner said, the cat had cubs with it, obviously meaning that it wasn’t alone.
Since cougars are not know to exhibit melanism, there are two possibilities in nature.
First, it could be a jaguarundi, a Central American cat known to roam in south Texas and suspected of periodically ranging into the southeastern U.S. The jaguarundi is slightly smaller than a cougar and isn’t black, but does go through a dark gray phase.
Second — and most fantastically — it could be a black jaguar. Jaguars are also thought to range from their Central American home into south Texas, so the trip to Louisiana wouldn’t be that far. The extreme southeastern U.S. was also once part of the jaguar’s historical range, and they are known to prefer swamps and river bottomlands above all other types of habitat.
“The possibilities are so vast,” Boggs said. “Without a photograph or something it’d be very difficult for me to tell.”
Boggs said the most likely explanation, though, is that Gardner’s mystery cat was once held in captivity and either escaped or was let loose. The presence of the cubs doesn’t mean another big cat had to sire them either. The father could have just as easily been a bobcat, as all cats — like all dogs — can interbreed and produce viable offspring.
“I don’t want to say it can’t be (a jaguar or a jaguarundi), but the probability’s very small that it would be one of those two things,” Boggs said.
Wild big cats may one day roam the parish for certain, but residents will be given their chance to have input on the matter before it happens. The Ouachita River valley is listed as a moderate priority site for reintroduction of the Florida panther in a USFWS recovery action plan for the species. For now, Boggs said, it’s just a plan on a piece of paper.
“If the federal government was to do that, there’d be public meetings,” Boggs said. “If you could get the public sentiment for it, the USFWS would certainly accommodate it.”Jason Stuart
Bastrop Daily Enterprise
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.