RARE AND SPECTACULAR CREATURES OF THE LOWCOUNTRY
Part III: Panthers
Written by Michele Roldán-Shaw
n parts one and two of this series, we looked at the historically documented—and possibly continuing—existence of black bears and giant manta rays in the Lowcountry. Another creature whose presence is highly debated throughout the area is the panther, also known as the puma. This amazing large cat, whose graceful movements and powerful musculature have provoked fear and admiration among many a hunter and outdoor enthusiast, once roamed freely over the entire Southeast. Like so many other species, it was negatively impacted by the encroachment of humans; over-hunting and habitat loss seem to have brought the southern panther to the brink of destruction.
Currently, official sources claim that the panther is found in just 5% of its former territory. This tiny pocket is located in a corner of southwestern Florida, and hence these survivors have come to be called Florida panthers. Yet unconfirmed sightings still run rampant around many other areas, including Beaufort Country, and many an old-timer claims to have had encounters with this great beast long after the last specimen was supposedly killed.
James Henry Rice Junior, author of Glories of the Carolina Coast (1925), is one local naturalist who felt the panther was gone completely.
He describes their decline thusly:
“Harmless enough to man, the puma was a destructive animal to sheep, calves and colts, also to farm dogs; hence an enraged populace combined to destroy it. The last known puma was killed in Newberry County about the middle of the last century, probably an estray from the swamps of Georgia, where a few survived until recently in Okeefinokee and Altahama swamps. Several pumas have been killed in the swamps of the Savannah River during the past forty years.”
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources does not officially acknowledge the existence of panthers in the state. On their wildlife page, there is no link to panther information. However, some people in the area disagree. Lowcountry author Roger Pinckney is one person who believes that panthers still survive in South Carolina. Growing up, he definitely heard a tale or two about these fearsome creatures.
“My father remembers panthers when he was a boy,” said Roger, who lives on Daufuskie Island. “He was born in 1909. His father and grandfather farmed at Coosahatchie, on land, which is now Roseland Plantation. The panthers would scream at night and terrorize everybody, so the field hands would stay up all night and build bonfires in the corner of the yard because they thought that would keep the cats away.”
Roger is of the opinion that a few panthers are still around, and that they may be making a comeback on the heels of the ubiquitous deer that provide their food.
“There have been some unconfirmed sightings around the Santee river over the years,” Roger noted. “Persistent sightings. Roadkills that disappear, or people coming home from deer hunting when they see a huge beast go across the road. There are lots of places around the country where panthers used to be, or where they never were at all, and now they’re showing up.”
As explored in Part I, bears have begun to reestablish themselves in South Carolina. So, Roger asks, why not panthers?
“We already have urban deer, and we’re starting to have urban bear and coyote,” he said. “I think we’re going to have urban panthers before this is all over. Wherever there’s a food source and a habitat that’s even barely doable, animals will adapt to it.” There is some debate among scientists as to whether or not the Florida panther is truly different from other panthers. Up until recently, it was widely accepted that the Florida animals were one of 32 distinct subspecies of cougar. But then research began to suggest that the animals known variously around the United States as cougar, panther, mountain lion and puma were all really the same species. However, one thing is for sure: eyewitness sightings of southern panthers consistently include size estimates that are far smaller than those of their western counterparts.
For some, recent sightings of South Carolinian panthers are about as believable as tales of the “swamp thing.” But a few people, including several Bluffton residents, swear they have had hair-raising encounters with felines decidedly larger than bobcats, even as recently as 2005. John Graves states that in 1970, a panther ventured onto his property on Graves Road, next to what is now Berkeley Hall.
“I had a panther come around the horses one night,” said John. “You could hear it growl and the horses got real upset. It was a good-sized cat, but I can’t verify anything.”
Less than a year later, he and his wife were driving home one night when they saw a panther cross the road near the current location of Dairy Queen. The animal wasn’t black, but sandy-colored like a cougar or mountain lion. Typical among those who claim to have seen panthers, the Graves found that most people didn’t seem too convinced by their story. “It’s like those UFO sightings,” said John. “Nobody believes you so you don’t say too much about it.”
Marion Gohagan would believe him. He is certain he saw the work of a panther three years ago at his home near Estill.
“I found a deer hanging about 30 feet up in a tree,” said Marion, who runs a commercial hunting guide service and has heard about many panther sightings from his clients. “You could tell that something had hooked its claws in it and drug it up the tree. I called the game warden and they wanted to act like it was just a bobcat. But only one thing could do that, and that’s a really big cat.”
Marion explained to the incredulous state wildlife officials that he lived “a mile out in the woods,” far from any neighbors, and that he had little kids riding bikes around the property. He wanted the panther incident investigated. Finally, a biologist agreed to look into the matter and they dusted the area with flour so that if the cat returned they would be able to see its tracks. But no more was ever seen of the deer-slaying, tree-climbing predator.
“Nobody wanted to believe the coyotes were here, and now they’re everywhere,” argues Marion. “But until they get a picture or a carcass, I guess they’re not going to believe there are panthers.” Bluffton resident Dennis Carter has seen panthers on three separate occasions, two of which occurred in Pinckney Colony where Dennis used to live. The following incidents occurred in 1994.
“I came back from hunting one night and I saw this big, black cat go across the road,” said Dennis, who lived on a dirt road off-shoot of Pinckney Colony called Calhoun Plantation Road. “I stopped just to ask myself if I really saw what I thought I did, then he went across the road again. It was a graceful liquid motion; he hit the road one time and was on the other side.”
The animal Dennis saw was jet black and an estimated 6 feet long. “I got a real good look at it and there was no doubt in my mind what I saw,” he said.
Dennis called the DNR to report what he had seen and asked if they would be interested in coming out to look at the tracks. They basically told him that there were no panthers in South Carolina and that what he had seen must have been an escaped exotic pet. They never came to look at the tracks. Two weeks later, Dennis was driving past the horse pasture on Pinckney Colony Road one foggy morning when he saw a panther crossing the field with what looked like a wild turkey in his mouth.
Dennis grew up on a hunting plantation in coastal Georgia and was quite familiar with tales of large wild cats that let out blood-curdling screams in the night. But that was the first time he’d ever seen one. It wasn’t to be the last.
“Two years ago I was deer hunting around River Road near Yemassee,” said Dennis. “As I came out of the stand late in the evening, I took out my binoculars and saw this cat. His shoulders were stooped down where he was drinking in the road and I thought about shooting him, but there’s really no reason to kill something like that except the bragging rights.”
Though it did cross his mind that a carcass would perhaps be the only way to convince naysayers that panthers still lived in the Lowcountry, he was unsure as to the regulations and consequences of taking such an endangered species. This could perhaps explain why no one has been able to produce a panther body: hunters who have seen one are either reluctant to shoot it, or if they do, they keep it quiet for fear of getting in trouble.
Development in Beaufort County has increased so much in the last few years that Dennis believes the few panthers left have found their way to uninhabited parts of the state.
“Panthers are very secretive and reclusive,” he said. “They are an animal of the night. I think they need their space so much that they would move on before they lived side by side with humans. But I believe there is still enough space in Carolina for them to exist. I would venture to say that if you went into the Santee swamps and really looked for them, you’d find panthers.”
Are there still a few rogue panthers left in Beaufort County, trying to scratch out a living in the scanty patches of woods between housing developments and commercial complexes? Or have these graceful beasts fled from human presence to seek refuge in the remaining tracts of forest and swampland, only to be glimpsed occasionally by lucky outdoorsmen? If we are to believe the words of reliable men and women who have lived in the Lowcountry for decades, many of them hunters with considerable wildlife observation experience, panthers are not extinct in South Carolina. But what are the chances of this rare, elusive animal ever making a true comeback in the Lowcountry while development continues? Will they thrive by feeding on the numerous deer as Roger Pinckney suggests, or will they pass by the wayside because they refuse to share space with humans? It’s up to the readers to judge for themselves!