SPECIAL REPORT— Since the 1950’s,
a purported unidentifiable and elusive carnivore species has prowled the swamps and forests of North Carolina. It has seemingly
captured the imagination of many citizens, even if actual sightings of the beast have been scarce and often questionable.
However, these folks who have seen these large animals often have strong convictions in what they have encountered and both
wildlife experts and media outlets are taking notice as well.
It was in 1954, when a mysterious predator
was said to roam the Bladenboro area for about a week. Pets and livestock were killed, residents heard strange noises and
saw shadows in the darkness and ensuing fear erupted.
Women and children stayed indoors. Men
carried their guns by their sides. Hunters, news reporters and curiosity seekers came looking for the ‘Beast of Bladenboro.’
While a bobcat was killed about a week afterward and was fingered as the likely culprit, doubters noted that a typical bobcat—30
to 40 pounds adult—was not capable of the carnage that had been seen in and around Bladenboro. Many described the creature as stockier and dark in appearance with a long tail.
Some suggested a “black panther”
was responsible for terror instilled in Bladenboro while others were more creative with terms like “vampire beast”
because a few of the animal carcasses found were drained of blood due to puncture wounds in their necks.
Despite the persistent doubts that the
bobcat was the ‘beast,’ the pet and livestock killings seemingly stopped and life went on, yet the stories remained
part of area lore and legend.
However, in recent years, more similar
sightings and occurrences have once again begun capturing attention in various parts of the state, most notably in eastern
The most recent of those reports have
surfaced in the western Johnston/northern Harnett county area, where numerous witnesses have reported seeing a large black
cat, possibly weighing approximately 150 pounds, with a long black tail. The Daily Record of Dunn, NC was the first to report
on the story, followed by WRAL-TV of Raleigh. Numerous sightings in the Angier and Benson areas have people talking once again
about a black panther roaming the woods. One or two eyewitnesses even claim to have seen such a beast as far back as a decade
Several online Internet communities have
also had members give unsubstantiated accounts of purported creature sightings. Edwin Liles of Angier told one of the more
descriptive and recent sightings to the Dunn newspaper. Liles and his fiancÚ reported seeing a black panther crouched over
a deer carcass that had apparently been struck on a rural road. It was on the evening of July 4 as they were returning home
from a fireworks show in Benson.
The couple told the paper that they turned
their vehicle around, shined the headlights on the cat and illuminated its lime green eyes and snarling teeth as it feasted
on the dead deer. Other eyewitnesses have reported seeing a large black animal bolting through clearings to reach wooded areas
in the rural areas of Harnett and Johnston County.
According to both U.S. and NC Wildlife
Services, most sightings are likely bobcats with perhaps a few cougars (sometime called mountain lions or panthers) that have
been freed by private individuals who have discreetly held them captive. Some experts point to the opportunistic nature of
consuming roadkill as evidence that most of these sightings are possibly cats that have little experience hunting on their
own and resort to scavenging for food. Some large cats are de-clawed by their captors, which would significantly reduce their
ability to hunt and kill for food in the wild.
Black panthers are not distinctive species
but rather are jaguars or leopards born with darker pigment (melatin) in their coats due to recessive genetics. In low light
environments, these cats can appear almost solid black. However, such cats are not indigenous to North America, except for
a small number of jaguars said to live in the southwestern US. Leopards are indigenous to Africa.
The North American cougar—sometimes
called a mountain lion or catamount—has never been officially recognized to have a black coat variant due to genetics.
While cougars once roamed North Carolina, officially they no longer exist in the eastern United States except for in the Florida
Similar reports of a large predator have
been reported in recent years in communities such as Bolivia (southeastern North Carolina town) and in Lexington, NC, located
in western NC. The History Channel featured these North Carolina sightings in an episode of their Monster Quest series. Analysts
who assisted in the network’s investigation of the Bolivia and Lexington incidents noted that the noises heard by residents
at the time of the attacks were described as distinctive, feline-like vocalization typical of large cats.
Other sightings—both in North and
South Carolina—have also been documented such as one intriguing story told to the Independent-Mail newspaper of Anderson,
SC. A U.S. Forest Service worker named Terrence Fletcher claimed to have been the target of a big black cat along the Chattooga
River in January 2007. Fletcher said the animal charged him, forcing a retreat into the ice-cold river.
Could such a large cat live in the Carolinas?
With an abundant whitetail deer population and thousands of acres of forests and swamps along winding rivers and tributaries,
it would seem possible for such an apex predator to exist here in small populations. However, the likelihood of melanistic
“black” jaguars or leopards thriving in the mid Atlantic region would be improbable.
Still, citizens who would have nothing
to gain from fabricating such a story have sporadically reported sightings of large cats for decades. Perhaps something does
lurk deep within the woods of our state and eventually the physical proof of their existence will be uncovered.