By David Williams (Contact)
Sunday, February 25, 2007
When Terrance Fletcher saw a big, black cat crouching and looking at him "like a cat looks at a bird" he knew it was time to run for his life.
Mr. Fletcher, 24, of Clarksville, Ga., is a U.S. Forest Service worker who was walking along the Chattooga River on Jan. 10 near a popular camping and fishing area south of Burrell's Ford Bridge.
"I looked over my shoulder, about 25 yards away, it took off running and I ran to the river and jumped in," Mr. Fletcher said.
Mr. Fletcher was not fleeing an oversized feral feline. He said it was a black panther.
Mr. Fletcher was gathering information about the public's use of the Chattooga River north of the S.C. 28 bridge for a Forest Service study when he saw the cat.
Dave Jensen, district ranger in Georgia, said he has no reason to doubt Mr. Fletcher, particularly since Mr. Fletcher elected to jump into the icy waters of the river to avoid the charging animal.
"It was a split-second decision," Mr. Jensen said. "He said it was black, low to the ground, about 1 to 2 feet and about 6 feet long and moving toward him rather rapidly."
When it comes to seeing big cats, black or the more familiar tawny color of cougars, Mr. Fletcher is one of a growing number of people in the Upstate who say they have had close encounters.
But when it comes to substantiated sightings, officials with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources say the official wild cat count is still zero.
"What we tell people is, we've been unable to document a wild cougar for many, many years," said Derrell Shipes, with the DNR in Columbia, S.C. "The last incident is before many of our lifetimes. There are sightings and then there are substantiated sightings: a photo, tracks, droppings or an unfortunate incident where there would be a body."
Mr. Shipes said a big cat was killed in Anderson County near Townville several years ago. The cat had wandered onto someone's deck and was eating dog food.
"It was determined it was an escaped animal," Mr. Shipes said. "We believe there are a number of big cats in captivity — lions, tigers, cougars — and they are not controlled by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources."
Clemson-based wildlife biologist Skip Still said he wouldn't put it past anybody to turn animals loose in the wild.
"People will turn loose anything," Mr. Still said. "Stuff like emues, boas and Western cougars or other exotic animals, but we will investigate credible evidence."
Mr. Shipes said he knows some really credible people who have said they've seen a cougar.
"We do not discount information and we are interested, but we can not spend an incredible amount of time and money," Mr. Shipes said.
Bobby Revels, 62, a plant manager with Construction Techniques in Calhoun Falls for 23 years, has spent a considerable amount of time and money on cataloging big cat sightings and on trying to get the elusive substantiated evidence.
Mr. Revels has not always been drawn to the big cats. In 2003, Mr. Revels, who was born and raised in Iva and has been a resident of Due West for 31 years, was a serious gold prospector.
"I really want to get back into it," Mr. Revels said. "I have five grandsons and I hope to get everyone of them involved in outdoor recreation."
But in 2003, Mr. Revels was prospecting on about 860 acres he had leased in Abbeville County just off S.C. 28. He and his partner, Steve Kelly of Williamston, had done all the "do's and don'ts" required by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for prospectors and were walking up a creek with their shovels, pans and snacks.
Mr. Revels said Mr. Kelly was up on the creek bank when they heard a big growl.
"I knew in the beginning it was a cat," Mr. Revels said. "Steve looked down at where I was and said, ‘get out from down there. It has a little one with it.'"
Mr. Revels said he has not been prospecting since, but he has gone looking for the cats.
"I'm not as young as I used to be, but I have a lot of cameras in the areas where cats have been sighted," Mr. Revels said. "My grandson Adam (Adam Scott of Abbeville) who is a fourth-grader helps me collect the memory cards and set up at new locations."
Mr. Revels has a picture of a bobcat — he knows the difference between the two cats — and said he doesn't need a photo to convince himself that cougars are back in South Carolina. He believes the cats could have migrated from Florida where there is a known population of the Florida panther, or a government agency has re-introduced the cats to the area and is shying away from publicity.
In fact, Mr. Revels said he believes there is a small population of big cats, either the Florida variety or Eastern cougar, in northern Pickens County.
Mr. Shipes said the Florida Panthers have left tracks and droppings in Florida but there has been no interaction with humans that presented problems in the sunshine state.
"They have had a few get hit on the road," Mr. Shipes said. "If there had been one in South Carolina that got hit there would be more than just talk."
Mr. Shipes said only two species of cats are known to be black and they are the jaguar and the leopard and neither one is native to North America. The jaguar is native to South and Central America and could have ventured as far north as Mexico, Mr. Shipes said.
Mr. Revels said that with hundreds of sightings over many years the state should investigate the possible migration of the cats into the state.
"We're talking about educating the public about the recovery of the Eastern cougar," Mr. Revels said. "There may be a lot of resistance to it because of deer hunters and livestock owners, but if it has already happened then the public should be told and warning signs need to be put up in places where they know these cats are living and hunting for food."
David Guynn, a professor of forestry and natural resources at Clemson University, said he's aware of more than 100 captive cougars in the Upstate.
"Most are Western cougars that have been brought here," Mr. Guynn said.
Mr. Guynn, an avid deer hunter, said he has colleagues who swear up and down they have seen big cats, but he also said otters when walking across land have a cat-like shape and a long tail.
"I was in a deer stand and one came across a point in front of me real quick," Mr. Guynn said. "If it hadn't come back across with another otter, I might still think it was a big cat."
Bob Downing of Clemson, who worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 20 years, spent five years tracking down all reported big cat sightings in the Eastern and Southeastern United States. He was unable to substantiate any of the reports he investigated.
Mr. Downing said the big cats ended up eliminated in the area because they are easy to hunt.
"Any kind of dog will trail one and run him up a tree," Mr. Downing said. "You can kill one with a .22 rifle. People were trying to protect their livestock."
Mr. Downing, who served on the Eastern Cougar Network board, said he is aware of the reported sightings, but he too has not seen any substantiated proof of any return of the wild Eastern cougar.
Some people do not need to see the big cats to know they are in the Upstate.
Chuck Mulkey of Chuck's Deer Processing and Taxidermy on the Abbeville Highway said his neighbor lost a horse to something that pulled it down.
"He wasn't 100 percent sure it was a cat, but it had claw marks on its hind quarters," Mr. Mulkey said.
Mr. Mulkey also said he has heard stories of hunters and rural residents finding half-eaten deer carcasses left high in trees.
"I believe the cats are around," Mr. Mulkey said. "Maybe they were pets or released, but I would swear on a stack of Bibles there was one near my shop standing on the side of the road. It was a black cat with a three-foot-long tail.