The eastern panther hasn’t been prevalent in Maryland since the mid- to late-1800s, yet accounts of the large felines in Harford County have come in nearly as frequently as those of black bears, a species known to still exist and wander into the county. But this week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extinguished the hopes of rebel naturalists and closet cryptozoologists by declaring that the eastern panther (also known as cougar, puma, or mountain lion) had officially gone the way of the dinosaur and dodo – extinct.
The subject of eastern panthers has a unique resonance in Harford County, which has a long and fascinating history of harboring the native big cats. Whether the panthers are here or not, it cannot be disputed that big cats are on the minds of residents whenever an unusual track is found, a strange cry echoes from within the woods, or pets go missing.
Here is the official release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Although the eastern cougar has been on the endangered species list since 1973, its existence has long been questioned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued today, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.
“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”
Reports of cougars observed in the wild examined during the review process described cougars of other subspecies, often South American subspecies, that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released to the wild, as well as wild cougars of the western United States subspecies that had migrated eastward to the Midwest.
During the review, the Service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies; conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and requested information from the 21 States within the historical range of the subspecies. No States expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population. According to Dr. Mark McCollough, the Service’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, the subspecies of eastern cougar has likely been extinct since the 1930s.
The Service initiated the review as part of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act. The Service will prepare a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal will be made available for public comment.
The Service’s decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the status of the Florida panther, another wild cat subspecies listed as endangered. Though the Florida panther once ranged throughout the Southeast, it now exists in less than five percent of its historic habitat and in only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida.
Additional information about eastern cougars, including frequently asked questions and cougar sightings, is at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar. Find information about endangered species at http://www.fws.gov/endangered.
Reacting to the USFWS declaration of extinction, John Lutz, Director of the Eastern Puma Research Network in West Virginia, said, “We know of thousands of individuals and professional scientists who claim it’s almost ‘comical’ the way the USF&WS is attempting to prove that eastern cougars are extinct. Many professionals are puzzled why the feds are so obsessed with this cat. Could it be, they are ‘nervous’ due to increasing numbers of attacks on livestock as well as humans in midwest & east?”
“Their policy is to deny, deny, deny, deny…, but in science, you cannot prove a ‘negative’, so how are they going to prove, no surviving native eastern cougars?…when thousands of reliable and most credible witnesses are seeing them?,” he added.
Lutz, a former Baltimore County resident who has collected thousands of eastern cougar reports over the last three decades, said he received more than 300 phone calls and emails the day after the USFWS issued its decision – each from an alleged panther witness who wanted to refute the supposed extinction of the big cat they claimed to have seen.
Random scattered reports aside, no period on record in Harford County produced as much evidence, as many sightings, or generated as much concern as a stretch of time nearly 50 years ago.
A report of a dead pony, found viciously mutilated and partially eaten, appeared in a front page article of the Oct. 20, 1966 edition of The Aegis newspaper and kicked off several months of intrigue, fear and an all-out monster hunt. Subsequent editions of the newspaper blared the front page headlines, “Alarm Grows, Search Intensifies for Huge Cat That Killed Pony,” “Area Now Genuinely Scared of Giant Cat As More Reports of Depredations Come In,” and “Search Is Intensified For ‘That Thing’ As Deputy Sheriff Get Close-up Look At It.”
Whispers of mountain lions continued to circulate about Harford County as large paw print tracks were found, a calf was found partially eaten and dragged for a good distance and locals reported frequent sightings of the elusive lion. After the Baltimore Zoo confirmed the paw prints were indeed from a cougar, a 250-man posse was formed to patrol the local woodlands and, while the bands of marauding hunters weren’t able to track down their quarry, a number of them found themselves in trouble with the law for brazenly brandishing firearms in their trek through the northern wilderness of the county.
A deputy sheriff caught a glimpse of the tawny animal, which he described as about five feet long and weighing about 100 pounds, but it was never confirmed whether the roaming feline was an escaped pet or a wild resident. In the span of just two months, dozens of concerned residents relayed their fears to local law enforcement officials and many reported actually seeing the animal.
In more recent times, cougar, panther, mountain lion and catamount sightings have occurred sporadically in the area. In 1992 and 1993, several residents described a brown or tawny colored cat roaming about the county’s woodlands and farmlands, but no definitive explanation was ever presented. Photographic evidence of a tawny-brown cat in 1992 and a grayish-brown cat during the blizzard of 1996 appear inconclusive and, while they certainly portray living cats, it is unclear whether the feline is a house cat, bobcat, panther or something else.
Then, in the summer of 2001 through autumn of 2002, a big cat returned to Harford.
What follows is a chronology of sightings, evidence and accounts of recent large cat activity in Harford County unlike any seen since the 1960s:
June 2001: As reported in naturalist Bob Chance’s “Earthline” column for The Aegis newspaper, a woman near Priestford Road (Route 136) near the Aberdeen Proving Ground tank testing area in Cool Spring saw what she described as a “wild cat.” On a secluded dirt driveway leading to a farm, she saw the cat, described as tawny-gold with a white butt area and a long tail, walking near a small stream at 6:45 a.m.
She watched it through binoculars at two intervals and later found its tracks in the dirt. Both Chance and the woman suggested nearby development in the rural area may have prompted the mammal to alter its normal exposure.
November 2001 (a few days before Thanksgiving): A resident of Havre de Grace, who lived on several acres of property backing up to Susquehanna State Park, was pulling into her driveway one evening when she saw a large animal sitting under her car port, apparently sleeping. Not knowing what it was, the woman got out of her car and came within 20 feet of the creature before it sat up and stretched and she retreated to the safety of her nearby car. She said as soon as she saw its paw, she knew the jet-black creature was a panther and that, interestingly enough, it was not her first experience with the large beast.
A few years earlier, sometime in 1999, the same woman was on her way home one evening when a large animal passed in full view of her headlights. The animal froze in the beams and eventually crossed the road, but not before turning to glare at her. The woman described the animal as such, “It was definitely a panther. As a little girl, I used to watch a weekly show that had a panther in it, so I know what it looks like. I’m 100 percent sure that’s what I saw. It had no other color, it was coal-black.” The black cat was said to weigh at least 100 pounds and sat up at a height of about three feet high. Its long tail was said to end in a “bulb.”
The panther was said to act very much like a normal house cat with the exception of its unusual size. The woman who saw the cat said she is certain it was a big cat and not a black labrador retriever saying, “We have lots of black labs in this development and we used to own one, but this was totally different. They have a totally different muscular structure in the face.” The woman said her son’s friend also viewed the cat and she heard it screaming along with several others on subsequent nights.
Concerned it may attack her or a neighbor, she contacted the Plumpton Park Zoo in nearby Cecil County and was told they were not missing any large cats. A ranger at Susquehanna State Park visited the site after the woman said she had found large scat on her patio and heard what she believed to be the large cat knocking a wreath off of her front door. The scat had been discarded, but she was instructed to save any further samples as evidence.
Interestingly, both sightings in 1999 and 2001 occurred during periods of severe drought in the central Maryland area. The woman commented during each sighting the water levels of the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam were low enough to see the rocks and so one could probably cross the river on foot.
As to why her property was sought out by the panther both times, the woman hypothesized it may have been attracted by the overhang of her carport, the only one in the community, perhaps thinking of it as shelter or a cave.
November 2001: A resident living on Whiteford Road (Route 136) in Pylesville near Broad Creek saw what he described as a large, solid brown-colored cat crossing a field by his house one morning. The man, a hunter who lived on a farm with a goose-filled lake and deer-rich fields, described the animal he saw walking across the field as such: “It’s dark brown in color. It’s a good-sized cat. It’s about five feet long counting the tail and is about three feet off the ground. It is a humongous thing.”
The man saw the cat crossing a field from about a hundred feet away and was sure it was feline by its movements and appearance. When neighborhood children made some noise and commotion on their way to school he said the cat dropped flat to the ground in a crouch and remained in that pose until the children left, upon which it resumed its walk.
February 20, 2002: Outdoors columnist for The Aegis newspaper, Hayward Putnam, concluded his weekly fishing and hunting report with a curious mention of a strange animal being sighted about Harford County. Putnam said he had talked to hunters and hikers who have seen what they call a “cat-like creature” in the northern part of the county. The animal was also referred to as a “black panther” and Putnam said others who haven’t seen the big cat have heard its “eerie cry” at night.
April 5, 2002: A Bel Air man saw what he described as a dark, 3 to 3 ½ foot tall cat with a very long tail and pointed ears emerge from the woods sometime in the late morning as his son was mowing the lawn at a wooded property in Bel Air on McCormick Street. While the Town of Bel Air is a very much an urban area, there still remain small patches of woodland and larger section of wilderness, which follow Winters Run and Bynum Run as the creeks wind around the municipality. The man was adamant that what he saw was not a bobcat and that it was a very dark brownish or black color. He saw the animal from about 75 feet away and explicitly said there was no white chest or throat area.
The man also reported several others who saw the cat in the same 3-4 acre wooded area in years past. His son saw a large black cat during a day in April or May of 2000 and a friend of his saw a similar black cat about one year later in April of May of 2001, both times at the same spot. The owner of the Bel Air property also saw a large animal, which she believes may be the big cat.
Two other people in the Bel Air area, one living near Bynum Run and another living near Winters Run, each reported hearing a terrifying screaming at night. These reports kicked-off a flurry of nearly a dozen reported sightings of a cat-like animal, both tan and black, in the region.
April 18, 2002: Again in an “Earthline” column, Bob Chance said a diurnal mammal had been feeding on goats, deer and other herbivores in the hills just across the Susquehanna River in Cecil County. South of the Octoraro River, Chance examined the carcass of a large pet goat, which had been killed and dragged. A photograph of the goat and of a slightly eroded four and one half inch track ran in the paper and Chance said the track pads were too heavy for the native bobcat, a German shepherd or a coyote.
While no one saw the predator, Chance said the forested Susquehanna River valley has served as a traditional migration route for bear, otter, mink, deer, fox and beaver for thousands of years.
April 2002: The same Pylesville resident who sighted the cat in November 2001 said he again saw the dark brown cat several months later as it again crossed his field. The man commented the cat, which he called “some type of a Pennsylvania mountain lion,” perhaps was too old and that is why it was out in the day and not afraid of being seen. The man also said local hunters have been jack lighting deer at night and leaving the carcasses in the area, which may be attracting the large cat. Both times he saw the cat it was early in the morning and he believes it was the same dark brown individual. After April, corn began to grow in the field, blocking his view of whatever may be crossing the property.
Several months later, when the cougar flap was in full swing, the man’s wife would claim a friend of hers, who is a wildlife rehabilitator in Jarrettsville, had not only seen the large cat, but also its kittens. She would further allege her friend actually found the lion’s den in the wilderness near her home, but was unwilling to divulge information for fear trophy hunters would seek out the den to kill the cat.
May or June 2002: A Delaware man who used the Harford County Airpark in Aldino reported he was flying an ultra-light plane low to the ground near the Conowingo Dam in Darlington when he saw a cougar chasing deer below him.
Early June 2002: A Jarrettsville woman who lives close to Rocks State Park was working in her garden near dusk when she saw a large, tawny-brown cat with a white chest and pointed ears sitting at the edge of the woods near the rear of her property. She was able to run into her home and take a photograph of the animal from about 100 feet away and the pictures offer a large tan animal with triangularly pointed ears, a white chest and blazing eyes. No tail is visible in the photograph and the cat disappeared before the woman could see it move or determine if it had a tail.
The woman said she owns three cats and that this animal was much larger and had tufts of hair on its ears. She believes what she saw and photographed was a bobcat, but described its screams she has heard as terrifying nonetheless. “You hear ghastly noises from the woods at night,” she said.
June 13, 2002: The son-in-law of the Bel Air man who spotted the black cat on McCormick Street was coming home from a soccer game at 11 p.m. when, near Route 543 and Prospect Mill Road, a large cat ran out in front of his car. The man said he almost hit what he said was definitely a big cat that he thought was black in color.
Mid-June 2002: A woman who lives in the curator’s house near the 4-H Camp at Rocks State Park saw a large cat at about 2 p.m. one afternoon in her yard. She described the cat as 3 to 3 ½ feet tall, dark brownish red in color with no white on it and a very long tail.
July 5, 2002: A woman living in Abingdon said she saw a large animal with a very long tail.
July 8, 2002: During a severe electrical thunderstorm passing through the area, an Abingdon woman living in the Woodsdale Senior Housing Development went outside at about 10 p.m. to see if any other residences in the community were without power. As she shined her flashlight outside, she saw what she described as a jet-black cat that appeared to be the size of a small bear and had big eyes.
The woman quickly entered a neighbor’s home and together the two women watched the long-tailed animal pace for a while before they said it “lept” away very much like a large and heavy cat.
July 11, 2002: A Fallston resident was returning to his home at about 11:30 p.m. when a red fox dashed out in front of his car, followed closely behind by a pursuing mountain lion. The man said had he not slammed on the brakes to avoid killing the fox, he would have certainly hit the large cat, which he said was about the size of a large dog with a long tail. He estimated the animal weighed about 80 pounds and was of a dark, solid color of deep brown or black. The man is a hunter and said he is familiar enough with wildlife to know what he saw was not a bobcat and resembled a cougar.
He commented his rural property is home to many deer and geese, which the cat may be feeding upon. He also claimed to have heard what must have been the animal ferociously growling and screaming outside his home on July 13 and 14. The man commented recent development in the region may have driven the animal out of its wilderness home.
Mid-July 2002: A woman residing in Cool Spring, within a mile of Deer Creek and the Aberdeen Proving Ground Tank Testing Station, saw a large animal appearing in her backyard each night at dusk for about a week straight. A neighbor took a photograph and the families believe what they have been seeing may be a coyote.
July 12, 2002: A man living on the east side of Bel Air, within a mile of Bynum Run, heard what he described as two terrifying screams early in the morning, but was unable to locate their source or point of origin.
July 22, 2002: The same Bel Air man, living within a mile of Bynum Run, again heard the terrifying screams at about 4 a.m. This time, upon looking out his window, he saw a big, cat-like animal pacing between two bushes in front of his house. The man said the animal was about 3 ½ feet tall and screamed four more times as he watched it pace. He was unable to see if the animal had any sort of a tail. When he called the Maryland Department of Natural Resources he was told it was most likely a fox, but he insists what he saw and heard was not a fox.
July 24, 2002: A woman who resides near Deer Creek in Street said she had just returned home from a vacation when she heard an odd noise she described as a “woman screaming” in her back yard. As strange as the screaming was, she said she was familiar with it as she had heard a similar cry two years ago, when a neighbor’s goat was ripped to shreds by a predator. When she ran to her garage door and looked outside she said she saw a pair of eyes shining back at her and an animal about the size of a small collie run off.
While she didn’t notice the color of the animal or if it had a tail, she did hear it hissing and screaming as it ran off into the woods. Familiar with indigenous fauna, the woman assumed it was a bobcat and, afraid of what threat the animal may pose to her children and pets, called a cat biologist in California and described the sounds she heard and creature she witnessed. To her amazement, the biologist told her she had just described a cougar. The validity of this witness is unique in that she was on vacation for the previous week and missed both stories in the newspaper about cougar sightings. When she casually mentioned to a friend that she thought a bobcat was in the area again, but that a biologist told her it was a cougar, her friends quickly alerted her to the situation involving the numerous mountain lion sightings in the area recently. It was only then, that the woman found out about the flap of sightings.
August 26, 2002: A woman living on Ady Road (Route 543) witnessed a long, dark brown, cat-like animal eating apples from under a tree in her back yard. At about 11 a.m., the resident noticed a peculiar animal in her yard feasting on fallen apples, pacing about and even relieving itself on her lawn. After finding her camera, but unable to locate any film, the woman grabbed binoculars and decided the best thing to do would be to study the animal’s behaviors from afar, which she did for about 10 minutes.
She described the animal as dark brown in color with no white or lighter areas, short-haired with big, pointed ears, a long body, just bigger than a fox, with an approximately three-foot long tail and a pointed, fox-like face. The woman went on to say she was able to get a good look at its face and would have thought it was a mange-ridden fox with a cat-like tail, but she is familiar with local wildlife and knew this animal was something different. Having seen several of the above-mentioned photographs, the woman said this was definitely something different.
Upon researching the topic, the woman concluded, to the best of her judgement, it could not have been a fox, bobcat, cougar or dog, but matched identically with photographs she had seen of the Central American jaguarundi. The woman said the most curious features of the animal were its pointed snout, excessively long tail, solid brown coloration and its eating of the fallen fruit, each of which, she said matches the habits of the jaguarundi. The woman said several cats had been missing in the area and she noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of young rabbits on her property this season. She also noted that the day she spotted the animal coincided with the day she brought her dog back to the property after it had been boarded for some time.
November 4, 2002: From the police blotter of The Aegis newspaper, a man residing on Whiteford Road told police there was a cougar behind his home and he was concerned for his dogs because he believed a previous dog he owned was killed by a cougar.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources claimed it hasn’t had a legitimate cougar sighting in the state in longer than a decade and even then it was a pet chained to a tree in a front yard. When asked, representatives from DNR flat out denied they were hearing any whisperings or calls about large cats, even though several of the witnesses said they called the agency themselves to file a report.
Without the support, records and resources of such organizations and left with only the testimony of eye-witnesses, the only recourse is looking into the past. Fortunately, Chad Arment, a researcher with the North American Bio-Fortean Review, did just that. Aside from detailing the 1966 and 1992 cougar sightings, Arment unearthed a curious, yet intriguing piece of evidence, especially in light of the recent sightings.
In his research of strange occurrences in Harford County, Arment came across the story of the White Ghost Dog of Spesutie Island. The island is owned by the federal government as part of Aberdeen Proving Ground and is located in the Chesapeake Bay just south of where the Susquehanna River pours into the body of water. In his research of the legend, Arment came upon mention of the wildlife on the island from a 1954 article in The Baltimore Sun, which says a motorist traveling on the island is apt to startle a fawn, red fox “or it may alert one of a peculiar race of black hunting cats discovered on the island.”
While Arment was never able to track down the curious meaning of that statement, it appears to take on new significance given the recent proliferation of sightings that are described by most as…a peculiar race of black hunting cats.
Wildlife officials claimed no such animals exist, the local Cecil County zoo reported no loss of large or exotic cat at the time and, although people told me they knew of at least one nearby resident who kept a cougar penned in his backyard, no one came forward to claim a missing pet.
So what’s the answer?
Could the 50-year drought and continued development into the woodlands of Harford County have pushed a reclusive native cat into the public eye?
Are natural resoure agencies covering something up, and if so, to what end?
Or is there just something special about Harford County that leaves residents crying “panther!” everytime they see a shadow?
This article originally appeared in the North American BioFortean Review vol. 4, no. 2, Issue #9 in December 2002. The publication can be found in its entirety at http://www.strangeark.com.