Ask Heidi

Eyewitnesses swear there are black panthers in Illinois. Are there really?

Q: Are there black panthers or cougars in Illinois? Seems like every few years someone sees one and it's in the news. — G.P.

A: Big cats have shown up in the news for decades, with the latest cougar sighting happening near St. Jacob in May of last year.

The State Journal-Register reported cougar sightings north of here in 2012. In the late '90s, the Belleville News-Democrat reported a "pure black panther" wandering in the woods near Edwardsville and north of Troy.

In November 2012, the "Finding Bigfoot" television crew had finished filming a show near Pere Marquette State Park and was heading back to the hotel for the night when multiple members of the group saw a black panther along the side of the road.

In the 1980s, a black panther was haunting East Carondelet, eating stray dogs and remaining one step ahead of big game hunters. It was also spotted near Columbia, Millstadt and Maeystown. St. Clair County Animal Control used a helicopter in a futile effort to track it. The big cat disappeared, leaving behind only paw prints.

Dozens of eyewitnesses have reported seeing big black cats or melanistic cougars, but the Illinois Department of Natural Resources says these creatures don't exist here. However, they say cougars of the normal color variety could be passing through on their way somewhere else. Yellow cougars have been spotted in Missouri in recent years, and a few have been hit and killed on highways.

To see any confirmed big cat sightings near you, check out the Cougar Network's digital map. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching cougars and other wild cats in North America. The Department of Natural Resources works with the group but is not affiliated.

One cat, many names

The panther or cougar has more names listed in dictionaries than most other animal in the world. Some of the names for the large cat are mountain lion, puma, painter, el leon, panther and catamount. Historically, the panther could be found from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts.

Despite the many names, a panther is not the same animal as a bobcat, ocelot, leopard, jaguar, lynx or cheetah, which are different species.

Doug Dufford is a wildlife disease and invasive species program manager who also handles the coordination of large carnivore sightings and response. This includes sightings of cougars, black bears and gray wolves. He has worked for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources since 1986.

Witnesses report black panther sightings often. Dufford said, "There’s a phenomena there, the number of people reporting these things. I would say at least one in three will say it's a black panther."

As far as experts are concerned, black cougars or melanistic mountain lions don’t exist because there's never been a picture taken or carcass found. Melanism, the opposite of albinism, is when there is an excess of dark pigment in the skin.

"When someone calls and reports seeing a black panther, then someone in my position has to wonder what they saw," said Dufford. "There are large cat-like animals that are black."

One is the jaguar that lives in Central and South America. The other species lives in Asia.

Dufford said, "In theory, a person could see a large black cat and it could be an escaped zoo animal or a domestic creature. Sometimes, people have animals they shouldn’t have."

Black panther in East Carondelet

Herb Simmons was the mayor when East Carondelet experienced a rash of black panther sightings in 1986 and 1987. He has served as mayor for 34 years.

Simmons said, "We had reports of it. People were complaining dogs and chickens were coming up missing. One resident claimed when she went to her chicken coop, she saw it running across the field. It just escalated from there."

Trappers from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, St. Clair County Animal Control and big game hunter and owner of Safari Coffee Dana Brown searched the woods around East Carondelet for the cat.

Authorities utilized a helicopter from the Illinois Department of Transportation to easily traverse the bottom lands after an animal control officer fell in waist-deep quicksand during the search for the animal. He crawled to safety.

In the course of East Carondelet's investigation, Simmons said he believed the black panther was the same one that had been taken from the St. Louis Zoo some years earlier.

In 1987, the BND reported a man named Milton Couvion spent time in jail for the theft of a black leopard from the St. Louis Children's Zoo in 1981. The leopard, named Samantha, was never recovered by authorities because Couvion would not disclose where she was.

He took the secret to the grave when he died in a car accident prior to the big cat sightings in East Carondelet.

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Bill Bonwell, left, and St. Clair County Animal Control Director Tom Amlung set traps near East Carondelet for the big black cat in February 1987. Keith Brumley BND archives

"The theory was, someone had it and kept it in captivity and then turned it loose," Simmons said. "But I don’t think anyone knew for sure.

"They’d get reports in Columbia and Maeystown, but IDNR said it can cover 100 square miles in no time," Simmons said.

At the time, hunters believed they found the cat's lair in a rock quarry outside of East Carondelet, but they never trapped it.

Simmons said, "Traps set out for over a month."

'A Sasquatch-scale discovery'

For hundreds of years, humanity believed black swans didn't exist. Then, in 1697, a Dutch explorer discovered black swans in western Australia.

Theorists now use the black swan as an example of the discovery of what may be considered impossible and the world-changing nature of unpredictable events.

In answer to the question of black panthers being the next black swan, Dufford, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said, "If they were there, somebody in North America would have found one. It would have turned up. We would have found a picture."

He said people have been actively looking for melanistic cougars since the early 1800s. If a black panther were to be discovered today, it would be "like a Sasquatch-scale discovery in the ecological world," Dufford said. "But it hasn't."

Cliff Barackman, a Bigfoot researcher, had been one of the stars of the television program "Finding Bigfoot" since it started airing in 2011. The final episode was recently shown on Animal Planet.

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"Black cat stalks East Carondelet," says this Belleville News-Democrat article from Dec. 18, 1986. BND archives

After filming one of the episodes of the show in 2012 around Illinois' Pere Marquette State Park, Barackman and the crew saw a black panther on the side of the road.

Barackman said, "It was a late night. I remember Matt Moneymaker was driving. I was in the passenger seat. Bobo and Nae were in the back.

"I saw on the right what looks, at first, like a dark gray German shepherd, trotting perpendicular towards the road," Barackman said. As the cars drove by, it turned right and went parallel with the road.

"It was not a German shepherd, definitely," he said. "It was moving in a more graceful manner, more so than a dog. It was definitely a big black cat.

"You could see the mountain lion markings underneath this particular one. I thought it was black or gray; when I got closer, it was a dark charcoal color," Barackman said. "The tips of the ears were more black. It had a long tail behind it in a mountain lion-like fashion. At the end of the tail was another black tip."

Throughout his Bigfoot investigations, Barackman said, people across the country have told him they had not seen Bigfoot but they have seen black panthers.

The number of reports has led him to believe the two animals may be sociologically related. Barackman believes they may share the same habitat, be nocturnal and shy of human contact.

"This is another species the local wildlife authorities refuse to say exists," Barackman said. "There are no good pictures, confirmed hoaxes, and no one has killed one and brought it in and showed experts."

He thinks, like Bigfoot, more concrete evidence is needed to prove the existence of black panthers. "Science doesn’t deal in subjective evidence. They need objective evidence," Barackman said. "People are terrible observers."

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Anne Cicero points to two tracks on her St. Jacob property in May 2017. Megan Braa

"Even my sighting, I had a three- to six-second sighting, I remember trying to figure out what it was I was looking at," Barackman said. "Those aren’t observations of scientific merit. I know what I saw. Like Bigfoot witnesses, not doubting what I saw when I saw it, but it was past before I realized what it was."

He believes government officials don't entertain the idea that these animals may be real, like Bigfoot, because "It’s a money thing."

Barackman said, "With the cuts to the Department of Agriculture, they’re shutting down roads. There's climate change, firefighting and laying people off. They don’t want to spend their resources on an animal that is so rare it doesn’t matter to them.

"If any animal is found, you have to do an ecological study to figure out which commercial activities affect it," Barackman said. He mentioned a rare spotted owl in the state of Washington and some logging operations that had to be shut down to protect it.

"Some communities have not recovered from that. Imagine what would happen if they discovered a Sasquatch," he said. Or another large mammal like a black panther.

Black panther's aura

Dufford, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, believes there are layers to the eyewitness sightings of black panthers.

"I can see how people can be confused. Certainly, the mind seems to play tricks on folks," Dufford said. "There seems to be an aura around the black panther."

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Armed authorities check an abandoned building in East Carondelet for the big black cat in December 1986. Clarence Chaput BND archives

He said, "Most of the time, when we can confirm what they see, it’s a domestic cat that is unusually large.

"I’ve tried to figure out what people are seeing, too. I don’t believe people are making this stuff up," Dufford said. "I don’t think they’re pulling my legs or crazy or whatever. But people can be misled, confused or see one thing and think they see something else.

"The black color is a mystery or there’s a phenomena there we can’t explain based on any scientific evidence," Dufford said. "Certainly a large cat-like animal, in this case the cougar, is a possibility. And one we recognize."

In Illinois, since 2000, the department of natural resources has confirmed the existence in the state of six or more regularly-colored cougars through carcasses. Other instances, there have been trail camera pictures of the animals.

"Whenever we’ve been able to confirm, they show up in clusters," Dufford says. "If you can confirm a cat or cougar on one trail camera, there’s a high probability you’re going to get another one."

Dufford believes these animals are usually young males on the hunt for new territory or on their way to somewhere else.

"Some people will tell you (the Department of Natural Resources) has been releasing cougars for decades," Dufford said. "Unequivocally, I can say, the DNR has not released gray wolves, black bears or cougars. There are no reintroduction programs and no plans to do so in the future."

Suggested reading

If you're into economic theory, pick up "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. However, some say the tome is unreadable because of its insider jargon, so borrow it from the library and give it a test read before investing in your own copy.

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