Sunday, May 26, 2013

Happy Memorial Day

"Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."

- John 15:13

Thank you to all who have served. A special thanks to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Do not sleep America and do not forget.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Alleged Black Panther Hair Analysis

Back in February of this year, a reader sent in a report saying that he had struck a large black cat of some kind with his vehicle in central Texas. The reader said he was absolutely positive the animal he hit was not a hog, dog, coyote, or anything other than a large cat in the 80 lb. range (you can read the initial report of this incident here). I get a lot of reports from readers who claim that they have seen what can only be described as black panthers. Most have nothing to back up their story. That is not to say they aren’t telling the truth; rather, it means only that there is no photographic or physical evidence to support their story.

This time was different.

The reader who reported striking the cat had the wisdom to examine the front end of his vehicle and discovered, in his words, a “collection of long semi-soft black hairs that had become stuck in the plastic.” This gentleman collected the hairs and mailed them to me in the hopes that I could have them analyzed and find out exactly what it was he struck.

To say I was excited about this development would be an understatement. I realized that there was a good chance that these hairs would turn out to be from something mundane but I had high hopes that I had been provided with evidence that might, if not prove, at least support the possibility that there are large undocumented black cats of some kind living in Texas.

The first thing I decided to do was to get the hairs to a friend of mine who has some background in hair analysis. To be completely up front, he is not a professional when it comes to this sort of thing but is very competent, owns his own microscope, and has the know how to quickly identify the hair of most common North American mammals. He holds a degree in Animal Science from Tarleton State University and is a life-long hunter, trapper, and naturalist. He is more than qualified to do the initial analysis of these hairs. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have a bag full of hog hair before I went out on a limb and sent the samples in to a university or lab for analysis. His results, supported with photographs of the samples, yielded results that were promising.

My friend found both undercoat and guard hairs among the samples. His comments include the following statements:

“I got a scale cast on the same hair from the undercoat. Thankfully, we didn't have to waste that sample. The hairs from the undercoat look like cat to me. The guard hairs are tougher. They are so thick and dark that I can't see the medulla with this microscope.” He added, “I'll try doing a scale cast on one tomorrow to see if the pattern matches the undercoat. I'm a bit paranoid, but I wouldn't put it past someone to throw both dog and cat hairs in a bag to see what we would do. However, from a quick glance, the scale pattern appears to be overlapping nicely on the edge of the guard hairs too.”

A second email soon followed…

“So far, it still has potential, because the cuticle has an acuminate imbricate pattern and the medulla appears to be uniserial on the fleece. If I see that on the guard hair, then we might want to have someone confirm what I'm seeing, especially if they have a polarizing microscope.”

The next conversation centered around the possibility of misidentification. Could the reader who struck the animal have made a mistake? Could the animal have been something common? Assuming the reader was right and the animal weighed in the 80 lb. range, there are not that many other candidates to choose from that might have been mistaken for a large cat. In my mind, the list is limited to a feral hog, coyote (though it would be a huge one), mountain lion or large breed of domestic dog. The response was:

“Its definitely not a hog, that's 100% certain. I'm still working on the dog aspect. I just want to make sure. As for domestic cat vs. wild one, that is something you can usually rule out by the other characteristics of the hair, such as diameter. The guard hairs are the ones I'm really looking at closely right now. Melanistic cats of any kind aren't really uncommon Those guard hairs are awfully thick for most small cats though. Truth be told, it looks a heck of a lot like leopard hair, but don't quote me on that (I’m including this statement since I’m keeping my friend anonymous).”

Later, my friend came back with the following:

“It looks a whole lot like these leopard hairs. These are using a special microscope, so they look a bit different than what I'm seeing, but the structure is the same. Look at the medulla running through the center of the shaft. Notice how they look like single file stacked disks? That's a uniserial pattern. You don't see that in dogs. The fleece hairs look like this, except that the medulla is black and the cortex and cuticle are dark brown. Which would make the hair appear black. See the very small notches on the side of the hair that look like they are overlapping at pretty even intervals (bottom link)? That is the cuticle. Your fleece hairs have a similar pattern.”

Intrigued, my friend, dug into a copy of the “Atlas and Key to the Hair of Terrestrial Texas Mammals” supplied to me by a professor at Texas Tech University. Nothing he found there changed his mind that these samples likely came from a cat of some kind. His final remarks on the matter were:

“Your particular hairs are pretty interesting. The scale pattern isn't all that remarkable. You can see it in cats and even in some dogs. The medulla is where it starts to get interesting. The medulla is really broad, is distinctly uniserial, and is more complex in the guard hairs. Throw in the fact that the hairs are visually black, which means a dark medulla and red edges under a scope, and they need someone with a better grasp to look at them. One thing you might try is forensics labs, rather than wildlife folks.”

Encouraged, I set about sending emails to the biology departments of various Texas universities. I included the photos of the hairs included in this post as well as the comments made by my friend during his initial analysis. I was confident that, if nothing else, enough had been done to convince someone at one of these universities to take a look at these samples. I would be greatly disappointed, however.

Most of my inquiries went unanswered. I suppose my request was not even deemed worthy of a polite dismissal. I received one reply in which a professor, in what I felt was a somewhat annoyed manner, lectured me on the fact that “black panthers do not exist.” He mentioned that there was zero evidence supporting their existence and there was, “simply no such thing.” I did receive a nice email from a professor at Texas A&M who put out my request on some sort of academic forum. This was somewhat beneficial in that it resulted in a professor from, of all places, Korea sending me the copy of the hair atlas mentioned above. No takers on actually examining the samples, though.

I received only two replies expressing any interest whatsoever. Both of these replies came from the respective heads of their university biology departments. Both said they would forward my request to their mammalogists. One of the two even regaled me with the story of his own black panther sighting in SE Texas a few years back. As you can imagine, I was very encouraged by this development and excitedly awaited further word from either of these two. It didn’t happen. I waited one week, then two. Nothing. Finally, I emailed them both again politely asking if they had spoken with their colleagues regarding the hair samples. This time, only one of them replied (the one who claims to have had a sighting himself). His tone was very different this time around. I might be reading too much into his short reply but he seemed curt and a bit annoyed that I had contacted him again. He said only, “It would do you no good for me to look at the samples.” I pointed out in reply that he had mentioned discussing the matter with his mammalogist. His one sentence reply said he would speak to the gentleman. Nearly two months have now passed and I have heard nothing back. It is pretty clear that I’m not going to…

I have had many people ask for a status report over these many weeks since I received these hair samples. I’m sorry it has taken so long. I had hoped someone would take a look at these samples and, even if it took a while, I would have something concrete to report. I didn’t want to engage in speculative theories. I wanted to have hard results. I guess that is not to be.

I find myself in a rather ironic situation. I am being told by biologists that there is no such thing as black panthers because there is no evidence to support their existence. When I share with these biologists that I may very well have evidence that could support the existence of these animals I am told that my evidence cannot be valid since they don’t exist. The circular nature of these arguments is incredibly frustrating.

I am at an impasse and don’t know what my next move will be. I am open to suggestions. If anyone out there has expertise in this area or can suggest someone that does I would appreciate it if you would contact me. I think that, based on the preliminary analysis, I might have something important here. I want to find out.

I’m hoping someone else out there feels the same way.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sasquatch Classics: The Converse Werewolf

Converse, Texas is not the kind of place one would normally associate with a monster sighting. The town, while small (it encompasses only 6.3 square miles), is now densely populated and heavily developed. Sitting only 15 miles to the NE of downtown San Antonio, it has become hard to discern where Converse ends and the Alamo city begins. It is known for many things these days; great Mexican food, the Judson High School Rockets football team, and Randolph Air Force Base to name a few. Converse, however, was not always so developed and civilized. Like most of Bexar County, it was once not much more than arid plains, rocks, cactus, and chaparral scrubland. Such lonesome country often holds secrets. The area that was to become Converse is no exception.

It is said that back in the mid/late 1800’s a rancher moved onto a plot of land near what is now Converse. The man was a rugged sort who had grown up in true pioneer fashion. Some versions of the tale suggest he was a military combat veteran who moved to the area in an effort to put the horrors of the Civil War behind him and live out his days quietly on the south Texas plains. This man had a son who was something of a disappointment to him. The lad was frail, bookish, and preferred studying to wrangling and hunting. This frustrated the old rancher to no end and he decided to “make a man” out of the boy.

To this end, the rancher decided to send his son out hunting. He hoped that the boy would take a liking to the sport and after making his first kill would prefer the more manly activity of hunting to that of reading and studying all day. The old man put a long gun in the boy’s hands and instructed him to go out and shoot a deer; the family needed meat after all. He directed the boy to hunt a heavily wooded area along a creek called Skull Crossing. The boy was reluctant at first and resisted but, one way or the other, was finally coerced into going. The old rancher watched with high hopes as his son walked away from the homestead toward the woods.

The old man would soon be disappointed, however, as his son returned a few hours later empty-handed. When chastised for returning without any game the boy told his father that he left the area out of fear as he had spotted, and been stalked by, a monster resembling a werewolf. The father immediately dismissed this wild story and cajoled his son into returning to the area to finish his hunt. The boy did not want to go but his father left him no choice. Trembling and fearful, the boy trudged back out to the ominously named area of Skull Crossing. Little did the old rancher know it would be the last time he would see his son alive.

Hours passed and darkness began to fall. The old man, the story goes, began to worry and have second thoughts about sending his inexperienced son out into the woods alone. While he hoped the reason the boy had not returned was because he had yet to make a kill, he began to have a sinking feeling deep in his gut that something was wrong. Deciding not to wait any longer, the rancher rounded up some neighbors and they made their way toward the wooded area near Skull Crossing in search of the boy.

What they found upon arriving there is the stuff of nightmares.

The search party happened upon a monstrous, hirsute creature hunched over the body of the rancher’s son. The beast was in the act of ravenously devouring the boy when discovered. The men got off a few shots at the monster but it bounded away at lightning speed. The “werewolf,” as it was dubbed, was described as standing between 8-9 feet tall and covered in dark hair or fur. Members of the search party described it as being some kind of unholy combination between a wolf and a man.

The old rancher was, understandably, devastated by the death of his boy. He blamed himself for not believing his son’s story and believed he sent him to his doom by forcing him to return to Skull Crossing to complete his hunt. The versions of the tale I’ve heard say that the rancher died shortly thereafter. Some versions say he became reclusive, refused to eat, and wasted away. Others say that he committed suicide by setting fire to his own home and burning up. Either way, it was a sad end all the way around.

Did this event actually occur? You won’t find any old newspaper accounts documenting the incident. I’ve looked and came up empty. Somehow, though, the tale has lived on for more than a century. Should the story be dismissed as an old campfire story? A myth? I’m not so sure. There are similar stories involving werewolves and other hair-covered monsters that live on in the folklore of the region. The story of the Wild Woman of the Navidad, Bear King of Marble Falls, the legend behind Woman Hollering Creek, the Hairy Man of Round Rock, and the mysterious limestone carving dubbed the Cleo Face all allude to old tales of beasts of similar appearance.

Much folklore has a basis in truth. I think it is possible that the legend of the Converse werewolf had its genesis in an actual event. Some believe that if a young boy was killed near Skull Crossing, it was likely the result of an attack by an animal much more mundane than a werewolf. That is fair enough but it fails to take into account the description given by the men who spied the beast. The animal was described as bipedal, covered in hair, 8-9 feet tall, and lightning fast. Whatever the animal was, it was not a mundane member of the local fauna. In fact, the description attributed to the animal, if given today, would immediately bring to mind only one animal; the sasquatch.

Many bigfoot enthusiasts seek to dismiss the idea that the Converse werewolf might have been a wood ape. No doubt, this is because of the alleged death of a human being at the hands of said beast. Others, myself included, are not so quick to dismiss the possibility that a sasquatch is the villain behind the legend.

Most who entertain the idea that North American wood apes might exist speculate that their diet is likely similar to that of black bears. Black bears do subsist mainly on plant matter. Berries, roots, and nuts, to name a just a few items are on their menu. Black bears also indulge in eating insects, grubs, birds, and mammals when the opportunity presents itself. While rare, black bears do occasionally hunt humans for the express purpose of devouring them. If wood apes exist and if their diet is, indeed, similar to that of black bears then it would not be out of the realm of possibility that a hungry sasquatch might take advantage of a situation where there was an easy meal to be had.

Admittedly, this is contrary to the behavior most often reported by witnesses who claim to have seen wood apes. Most witnesses report that these animals, once they realize they have been spotted, simply retreat back into the forest and make themselves scarce. It must be acknowledged, though, that tales of cannibalism and abductions have been associated with these animals since time immemorial. Many Native Americans feared sasquatches and believed they would snatch a wayward member of the tribe when given the opportunity. One simply cannot, in my opinion, use ancient Native American tales as supporting evidence that the sasquatch is real while ignoring other details of the legend.

People continue to disappear in the wild places of North America to this day, some under very odd circumstances. Many are never found. Most, no doubt, simply get lost and die of exposure, dehydration, etc. Others are likely the victims of foul play of a very human nature. Could a small minority of the missing be victims of abduction at the hands of wood apes? The legendary accounts of Albert Ostman, Muchalat Harry, along with the First Nations legends, suggest it is at least a possibility.

The story of the Converse werewolf is slowly fading away now. Sophisticated suburbanites have little time for such tales. As the years pass, fewer and fewer south Texans hear of the legend. Even those that have heard the story tend to dismiss it as mere folklore. It is a scary story to be told around a campfire or at Halloween and nothing more. To those of us who pursue these creatures and venture into the deepest forests and most remote places in North America the story has a different meaning. It is a cautionary tale. Fact or fiction, it reminds us to take nothing for granted, to always be careful, and aware of our surroundings.

I suppose that we’ll never really know what, if anything, happened at Skull Crossing all those years ago. Did a young boy really die? Did a grief-stricken and guilt-ridden father join his son in death soon thereafter? The truth, I’m afraid, has been buried along with the early residents of Bexar County.

Maybe it is best it remains there.

Friday, May 10, 2013

“The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.”

- Nancy Wynne Newhall

Monday, May 6, 2013

Temple Area Camera Maintenance Trip

I apologize for the long delay in between posts. It has been a pretty busy couple of weeks for me. Spring football is in full swing and that is taking up a lot of my time. The good news is that it wraps up at the end of this week and my afternoons and evenings will be freed up quite a bit. Also, this is “Fitness Gram” time in Texas public schools. The Fitness Gram testing is similar to the old Presidential Physical Fitness challenge. We have to test each kid in school on push-ups, sit-ups, sit and reach, trunk lift, and a running test (either something called the pacer test or a mile run). We also have to weigh and measure height on each kid in school. The actual testing isn’t so bad; it is the recording of all that data that takes all the time. The software we work with is not exactly user friendly, to say the least. Enough of all that, let’s get down to more interesting things.

I did manage to get out yesterday (Sunday) afternoon to my study area north of Temple, TX and check on the two game cameras deployed there. I was about two weeks overdue on checking them. You may recall that I had three cameras and one was stolen leaving me with only two in this area. As disappointing as this event was, the lack of photos from the other two cameras was even more depressing. I was hoping for better this time around. More on that in a moment.

I was a bit surprised at just how grown up the vegetation had gotten. Everything is fully greened up and it…is…thick. The vegetation was literally headlight high on my Tundra in the study area. The trip to the cameras, despite being short in distance, turned into quite the ordeal as all the underbrush, vines, thorns, etc. fought me every step of the way. It was downright impassible in spots. Though not as wet, it reminded me a bit of some of the old brush-busting trips out to the Big Thicket National Preserve during the TBRC’s Operation Forest Vigil. There were literally points where I had to stop and backtrack as moving forward was simply not an option.

The game trail on which the cameras were deployed remained relatively clear though the grass had grown up to the height of my knees in most spots. I decided at that time to pull the cameras. While the trail remained relatively clear, getting to it was quite challenging. Even though the wildlife in the area would be able to navigate through the thicket easier than I, it was clear that the creek bed itself was going to soon be the thoroughfare of choice for anything traveling through this area. I decided against moving the cameras to the creek bed at this time. Spring is the time when we tend to get strong thunderstorms in these parts and the creek rises quickly. I’ve lost several cameras here due to rising water and don’t want to do so again. I’m thinking of moving these cameras to my study area in Waxahachie at least until we are well into summer. Rain is sparse during the summer months and I’ll feel better about posting the cameras on the dry creek bed at that time.

Nothing unusual was photographed during this set. I was a bit disappointed by the small number of photos taken this time around. I am not sure if this is due more to a lack of animal movement through the area or if the performance of my aging Cuddebacks is declining. I tend to think, as I mentioned above, the wildlife is starting to use the creek bed as their travel route due to the increased difficulty in navigating the thick vegetation. At least I hope that is the case. If not, I’m going to be in the market for some new cameras soon.

I did get some nice shots of deer, an opossum, and a cottontail rabbit. I also got a nice shot of “Big Red.” Red is a coyote I’ve photographed several times. While nearly all coyotes have some of the reddish-orange coloring in their coats, it is the dominant color of this animal. He is colored almost like a red fox. I’m mildly concerned about him as he appeared quite gaunt in the photo. It could be a trick of perspective or simply be that the pickings have been slim this winter. I’m hoping to see him looking thicker the next time I get a photo of him.

As you can see, not much to report on as a result of this trip. I am due to check the cameras in Waxahachie in a couple of weeks. As mentioned above, I’ll likely place these two Cuddebacks out there at that time. Hopefully, the extra camera presence will pay off.

More soon.