In search of panther tracks

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 16, 2018

Recently, several people have asked to conduct interviews with me about the book project I’m working on. Panther Tales and Woodland Encounters is a collection of stories from people who say they have seen black panther, bobcat, mountain lions, or other surprising creatures in the woods.

There are those who will argue that there is no such creature in existence. Scientists and game officials say that such a creature does not exist. It is not here. They accuse people of mistaking house cats, dogs, and on one occasion even a raccoon for a black panther.

I am a story gatherer. I’m not out to prove a new species exists or that an old one has always been here (which is what I personally believe). I simply want to give people the opportunity to tell what they’ve seen if they want to. Do I believe that people are seeing black panthers in Harlan and Bell Counties, Appalachia, and many other states? Yes, I surely do.

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Some argue that the big black cats are a variety of other known species of cats going through a “melanistic phase” (or a stage of black as they grow up). I don’t know about that. I figure if there can be albino animals of all species, then why can’t there be a black mountain lion, or panther as most in these parts know of them?

People are seeing some kind of big black cat in the wild in many states. I don’t doubt it for one minute. I have been very blessed to see them myself. Reports are made constantly from different places, and authorities continue to deny that they exist. Hundreds of stories, perhaps thousands are told every year about the black panther.

One of the interviewers asked me if I had any proof besides stories told to me and my own sightings. He wanted to know if I had photos, video, trail camera pictures, hair samples, or footprints. I’ve failed to react fast enough to get a photo myself, being in total shock when I have seen them. I have seen photos and even had one family send me a video who asked to remain anonymous. But I don’t have possession of any of those things myself.

So, I decided to go back to an area where I have seen a black panther on two different occasions and look for footprints. Last week and this week, I did go back and there were footprints in a few places, but last week they were at the bottom of puddles, clear to see. This week they were in the mud. I measured one that was 4 inches long by 3 inches wide. It looked like the cougar tracks I’ve seen on the internet.

I bought plaster of Paris, a gallon of water, and a large bowl to mix it in. I’ve decided to carry these things in the back of my car – just in case! But the ground was too muddy today for anything more than a measurement. I have seen the tracks before in the same area, and usually put my foot next to it as a frame of reference. I know they are cat tracks, but I’m not sure what size cat they would be coming from. Today there were large ones and little ones beside them. I wonder if they belong to a mother and her baby. I know the shape is right for a big cat, but I’m not sure if the prints are big enough. They are about as wide as my size 8 women’s shoe.

If I can’t get an actual photo, I’m determined to get a plaster cast of a print. If anyone has photos, video, or casts of footprints they’d like to share, I’d really love to hear about it. I know there are people out there who are far better at this stuff than I am.

Reach longtime Enterprise columnist Judith Victoria Hensley at or on Facebook. Check out her blog: One Step Beyond the Door.