Charles Koehler, a Travelers Rest resident, was working in his garden last month when he heard a series of loud screams coming from the woods behind his house.
At first, Koehler was concerned that it might be a woman or hiker in need of help. But then his neighbor’s dogs started barking. “The dogs barked for several minutes, so I thought they had maybe treed some sort of animal,” he said.
Koehler called several neighbors, but they couldn’t explain the barking. That’s when he started comparing animal calls online.
“I listened to bobcats, coyotes, and all kinds of other animals. But then I found some female mountain lion sounds, and it was dead on. It had the exact cadence and shrillness of a female’s call when she’s looking for a mate,” he said.
Koehler wasn’t able to record the sound before the mystery creature moved on, but he remains adamant there’s a mountain lion roaming around his house.
“I’m not the only person hearing and seeing these cats,” said Koehler. “It’s happening all across the state.”
A Statewide Phenomenon
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources receives at least 100 calls a year about mountain lions, according to SCDNR biologist Jay Butfiloski. “We’ve received calls about mountain lions for years,” said Butfiloski.
“I’ve received reports from every single county,” he added.
A 2011 article from The Post and Courier revealed a string of unconfirmed mountain lion sightings in the Lowcountry. And last year, Ben Tanner, a Lady’s Island resident, captured video footage of what appears to be a large cat stalking a deer.
More recent mountain lion reports stem from the Upstate.
Last year, Ben Claes, owner of Jireh Property Services in Taylors, was cleaning a lawn down the street from Koehler’s house after a snowstorm and noticed large tracks on the ground.
“I was shocked when I first saw the prints, because they were so big,” said Claes. “SCDNR said the prints were from a dog, but I’m not sure I really agree with them.”
Nikolay Kapustin, deputy zoo administrator and veterinarian at the Greenville Zoo, said the prints, which measure 2.5 inches long, are likely coyote tracks. “There may be a hint of nail indentations, which cats wouldn’t have,” he said.
The city of Simpsonville has also received calls about mountain lions over the years, according to Colleen Jenkins, an animal code enforcement officer for the city.
In 2009, Jenkins responded to a call after several residents at Jasmine Cove apartment complex reported seeing a “large cat” in the surrounding woods.
“I actually drove out to the apartment and noticed some large tracks in the mud,” said Jenkins, who didn’t take photos of the tracks or file an official report. “I can tell you they weren’t from your everyday dog or house cat.”
There have also been several sightings at Clemson University over the years.
In 2007, a contract security officer called the university’s police department after he spotted what he thought looked like a mountain lion near the Calhoun Mansion. The responding officers later spotted the animal near Earle and Daniel halls, according to reports. However, they weren’t able to provide evidence of the encounter.
Many wildlife authorities and experts, however, remain skeptical of mountain lion sightings across the Southeast.
“The only recognized population of mountain lions in the South is in South Florida in the Everglades,” said Travis Perry, an associate biology professor at Furman University. “Except for a very small population in Florida, there are no known groups in the Southeast, or east of the Mississippi in all truthfulness.”
Mountain lions, which are also called cougars, pumas, and sometimes panthers, once roamed from coast to coast. But the population decreased in the 1900s as wild lands were cleared for agriculture and game hunting increased. By the 1960s, mountain lions dwindled in the western states but managed to survive into the 21st century.
The eastern cougar, however, was declared extinct in 2011. The last three eastern cougars were killed in 1930 in Tennessee, New Brunswick in 1932, and Maine in 1938.
A wild mountain lion hasn’t been verified in South Carolina in about 100 years, said Perry, who’s studied mountain lions for more than a decade. In fact, the bobcat is the only native wild cat found in South Carolina today.
A Florida panther in South Carolina?
Some actually believe mountain lion sightings in South Carolina can be attributed to the Florida panther, the only surviving subspecies of eastern cougar. The big cats once roamed the entire Southeast but were decimated by hunting. Now there are less than 100 panthers surviving in the swamps of South Florida.
“I guess a Florida panther could possibly roam into South Carolina, but I’m not sure they would make it that far without getting hit by a car,” said Butfiloski.
Male mountain lions, also known as toms, occasionally travel long distances and sometimes appear from South Carolina to New England, according to Perry.
“Dominant toms may inhabit a 100-square-mile area, and any other males, including cubs that are just born, are competing against the alpha,” he said. “The younger, weaker male lions will travel to get away to other areas and establish their own territory. Sometimes, these cats get pushed very far away from where they were born.”
But mountain lions don’t get along well with roads, according to Perry. “There would be road killed cougar carcasses showing up at least once a year if we had an established population,” he said.
SCDNR has yet to receive a report of drivers hitting a mountain lion, said Butfiloski. In fact, the wildlife agency has yet to receive a single piece of credible evidence even supporting the existence of mountain lions in South Carolina.
“I do not believe that South Carolina has a free-ranging wild cougar population,” said Butfiloski. “We have had a couple of cougars escape from captivity over the past 30 years or so, but they don’t elude leaving evidence behind.”
Robert Downing, a former Clemson-based biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, actually investigated several hundred big cat reports throughout the Southeast in the late 1970s and 1980s but found no proof of their existence outside of Florida.
“There are countless game and trail cameras out in the woods of South Carolina at any given time, and nobody has photographed a large cat, yet these animals do show up on game cameras in states that have cougars,” said Butfiloski, who believes the trail camera footage from Lady’s Island shows a house cat.
A history of mistaken identity and conspiracies
South Carolinians are likely seeing something, even if it’s not a mountain lion.
“People who report these sightings come from all walks of life, and are usually sincere and honest. They believe what they saw,” said Butfiloski. “But I think many people are mistaking coyotes, bobcats, and other animals for mountain lions.”
Many residents insist they’re either seeing or hearing mountain lions despite the lack of evidence.
Koehler, for one, remains convinced at least one mountain lion inhabits these parts. “I know what I heard that afternoon,” he said. “It was a female mountain lion.”
Some people even claim SCDNR is covering up the presence of mountain lions. One popular conspiracy theory claims SCDNR has released a breeding population of western mountain lions to prevent the state’s surging white-tailed deer population from causing too much agricultural damage.
“There is no way that this could remain a secret from the general population,” said Butfiloski. “Many biologists, myself included, would be excited about the thought of finding a population of wild cougars in South Carolina.”
Butfiloski said SCDNR would likely be eligible for federal money to study mountain lions and protect and manage lands for the presence of them if they actually appeared.
Many wildlife experts and authorities are hoping that mountain lions will eventually migrate east from the Rocky Mountain states and repopulate the region. In fact, some say it’s already happening.
According to Perry, western mountain lions have established breeding populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, and North Dakota in the last 25 years. And verified mountain lion photos and road kill carcasses are slowly but surely appearing in various states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
“South Carolina can probably expect to see one in the next decade given the rate at which these lions are showing up east and north of their established ranges,” said Perry. “We’ll probably see younger males pop up here and there in the remote areas of the mountains. But I’m not sure we’ll ever see an established breeding population.”
Luckily, the big cats probably won’t pose a serious threat to public safety when they do appear in South Carolina, according to Butfiloski. “Mountain lions typically keep their distance from humans,” he said.
But some residents, including Koehler, are already taking precautions. “Mountain lions are sneaky animals,” he said. “I’m telling neighbors to be more aware of their surroundings when they’re walking their dogs around here.”
Black Cat Fever
While some South Carolinians are reportedly spotting mountain lions, others are claiming to see something much more menacing: a black panther.
In 2003, eight residents from a Mauldin subdivision called police saying they’d seen a large black cat prowling around the woods behind their homes. The Mauldin Police Department tried to capture the cat using a metal cage baited with a slab of beef donated by a local grocery store but quit after trying for several days.
Several years later, the story of a federal forester’s escape from the clutches of a black panther in Oconee County made headlines. In 2007, Terrance Fletcher, a technician with the U.S. Forest Service, claimed he was chased into the Chattooga River by a 7-foot-long panther with “jet black” fur.
“The animal started running … so I decided to run and get away and jump in the river to get across to the other side,” Fletcher told The State. “It was a little too big to be a bobcat.”
In 2007, Katie Araujo, a Paris Mountain resident, said she came face to face with a large black cat while sitting on her front porch. “I was just sitting here, and all of a sudden I looked and there it was on my front porch. It was big and muscular. … When I stood up, it ran,” she told Fox News.
More recently, a Piedmont resident captured a trail camera photo of what many believed to be a black panther. But SCNDR later concluded the animal was probably a black coyote.
Many people claim they’re actually seeing a black mountain lion, but there has never been a mountain lion that has been seen, killed, or bred in captivity that is black, according to Perry.
Jaguars and leopards, on the other hand, have a gene that occurs in six percent of the population that causes black cats. Leopards, however, live in Africa and Asia. Jaguars, which are primarily found in South America, have established a small population in Mexico and occasionally cross over into Arizona or New Mexico, according to Perry.
“But for one to make it from the Southwest deserts to the mid-Atlantic mountains, Piedmont, or coastal areas is unlikely. Even more unlikely is for the jaguar to make it that far to have the rare gene that causes it to be solid black,” said Perry.
In 2015, Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist and speaker at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Cougar Network, cast doubt on black panther sightings in a blog post, saying “there is no compelling evidence that a single wild ‘black panther’ has ever existed in the United States.”
Most, if not all, wildlife experts and authorities believe black panther sightings are a result of misidentification. LaRue, for instance, said people are probably seeing a house cat or black lab.
But people could also be mistaking black panthers for pet mountain lions escaped from captivity, according to Perry.
Born Free USA, a national wildlife conservation group, estimates there are up to 20,000 big cats owned privately across North America. South Carolina’s collection of exotic pets includes mountain lions, tigers, and other big cat species, according to Butfiloski. However, it’s unclear how many there are because no one tracks it.
Fortunately, a mountain lion hasn’t escaped captivity for more than a decade in South Carolina, according to Butfiloski. The last recorded escape occurred in 2003 when a 200-pound pet mountain lion named “Rage” broke free from his cage in Laurens County. The big cat was captured after roaming free for two days.
Many counties, including Spartanburg and Anderson, ban exotic pets. And earlier this year, South Carolina passed a new law, effective next year, that makes it illegal to own a “large wild cat, non-native bear or great ape.”
Greenville County, which requires residents to obtain a permit and undergo inspections, has issued 17 permits for exotic animals, including two tigers, since 2012, according to spokesman Bob Mihalic.
According to Perry, the county’s lack of pet mountain lions doesn’t necessarily discount the sightings, because “mountain lions can travel very long distances.” He said it was highly unlikely, but possible that some people are actually seeing a western mountain lion or Florida panther that’s managed to dodge traffic and travel to South Carolina.
Butfiloski, however, believes black panther sightings are likely black coyotes, bears, bobcats, and other wild animals.
“Most people in the eastern U.S. haven’t ever seen a wild mountain lion or jaguar or leopard,” said Butfiloski. “I think many people just get excited when trail cameras or videos reveal an animal in the woods.”