Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Revisiting the Melanistic Jaguar Theory

All of you who have read this blog for any length of time at all know that the subject of large, black, long-tailed cats, or “black panthers,” is something in which I am particularly interested. This subject has become the number one most popular topic on this site. More people contact me about black cat sightings, by far, than sightings or anecdotes about any other animal (known or cryptid).

I have always felt that there must be a biological entity behind these “black panther” sightings. There are just too many incidents and too many credible witnesses to believe otherwise, in my opinion. If I am right and there is a real animal out there responsible for these sightings, what could it be? I’ve put forth several possibilities over the years: jaguarundi, jaguar, unusually dark-colored cougars, for example. Perhaps a combination of these three animals plus the occasional case of mistaken identity could explain the phenomenon? I’ve also entertained the idea, briefly, that maybe cougars in the wild do occasionally exhibit melanism as well as the possibility of an entirely undocumented large, dark-colored cat might exist in Texas and the deep South; however, the culprit most often suspected of being responsible for “black panther” sightings by those who think there is something to all of this is, without a doubt, the jaguar.

In the past, I’ve been very hesitant to jump on the jaguar (Panthera onca) bandwagon and anoint this big cat as the number one suspect in the hundreds of black cat sightings. Jags fit the bill as far as the size most often reported by “black panther” witnesses. People often describe “Labrador-sized,” or larger, cats with long tails. The jaguar is the largest cat in the New World and ranges in weight from 125-250 lbs. under normal conditions with some males reaching weights in excess of 300 lbs. (very rare). Color morphism does occur in the species with melanistic specimens appearing almost totally black in color. While much more rare than their normal rosette-coated brethren, melanistic jaguars make up approximately 6% of the total jaguar population. That being the case, why have I been hesitant to grasp the theory that “black panthers” may very well be remnant, or Northward wandering, jaguars?

The answer is simple. While 6% of the jaguar population is not an insignificant number of individuals, it still leaves 94% of the population with the normal spotted coats. IF the black panthers of Texas are melanistic jaguars then why is nobody seeing or reporting the much more commonly colored cats? If these are jags people are seeing, the spotted individuals have to be here too. If that is the case, then they would be easier to spot than those of the melanistic variety. Right?

Maybe not.

Spotted coats are a tremendous form of camouflage. It is the very reason so many wild cats are marked in this way. They are predators and need to be hard to see. Leopards, jaguars, bobcats, ocelots, margays, servals, cheetahs, young lions and young cougars all have spotted coats for part of, if not all, their lives. The spots allow these animals to blend into almost any form of cover as they break up the silhouette of the cat beautifully. I have come to the conclusion that maybe the large black cats being reported in the South are melanistic jaguars and they are being seen, while their spotted brethren are not, because their black coloration is not as effective a form of camouflage.

Allow me to demonstrate. Spread through out this post, is a series of photographs. In each photo there is a normally marked leopard or jaguar. These photos have all been circulating for some time now as a sort of “Where’s Waldo” game of find the cat. I’d seen them but not given them a lot of thought. Lately though, I’ve revisited them while considering them as something to study instead of just a hide-and-seek type of game. As you will see, or maybe not, the spotted coats of these cats make them all but impossible to detect while a solid black cat might stand out more. Imagine trying to spot one of these cats that is hunkered down in tall grass or a wooded area from a moving car or even as you walk through the woods. If it remains still, you aren’t going to see it.

As a matter of fact, just standing or sitting perfectly still in and of itself can keep an animal well hidden. We, as humans, seem to depend on movement to a large extent in order to spot things. Add the fact that we, as a species, have become less and less in tune to nature and become unobservant, at best, and totally oblivious, at worst, and not many of these animals are going to be seen, not even those that are not thought of as having perfect camouflage. The photo below illustrates this point. See how long it takes you to see the wolf in the photo. Some will see the wolf quicker than others but there is no denying that he would be very easy to miss despite not sporting a spotted coat.

IF the “black panthers” of Texas are jaguars, then the much more common spotted cats are here, too. They are just going to be almost impossible to detect unless they cross a road directly in front of a vehicle. Jaguars were native to Texas and much of the deep South at one time. Maybe they are making a bit of a comeback, much as cougars appear to be doing, across much of their old range.

What a great story it would be if it turned out to be so.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"A tiger does not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep."

- Shahir Zag

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Legend of the "Donkey Lady" of San Antonio

Nestled in the foothills of the ancient Texas Hill Country, San Antonio sits and looks every bit the part of a modern American city. Glass skyscrapers and the Tower of the Americas kiss the azure Texas sky, while below the hustle and bustle of city life continues unabated. In San Antonio, however, the old is never too far from the new and history is everywhere. Night is the time when the weight of it seems the most oppressive. You can just feel that important things happened here and on nights when the moon is small, or absent all together, you can almost imagine seeing the ghosts yourself.

It is this eerie aspect of the River City that has given birth to a myriad of legends. La Llorona, brujas, thunderbirds, werewolves and ghostly specters all inhabit prominent places in the folklore of San Antonio. It is a lesser-known tale that I wish to examine today. It is a tale that is part ghost story and part cryptozoological puzzle; it is the legend of the “Donkey Lady Bridge.”

Don’t let the somewhat silly-sounding name fool you. The “Donkey Lady” has been a source of terror for residents of south San Antonio for generations. As with most legends, there are various versions of the story; all attempting to explain the origin of the “Donkey Lady.” Though they all vary slightly, the tales have enough in common to make it seem plausible that there is a seed of truth in them. I will recount the version of the legend I heard years ago as a young boy.

Years ago, most agree sometime in the mid 1800’s, a settler woman lived near the banks of Elm Creek with her husband and two children. The couple was barely scratching out a living from farming the stingy South Texas soil and raising a few head of livestock. One day, the son of a wealthy San Antonio merchant came riding onto or near their property. Somehow, the young man came into contact with a horse or mule belonging to the pioneer family. The young man, the story goes, teased the animal and hit it with a stick. The poor animal retaliated in the only way it knew how and bit the merchant’s son. Enraged, the young man began to beat the animal even more severely than before. The poor creature’s cries reached the ears of the pioneer couple and they quickly rushed to the scene. It became obvious to the couple that their animal, no doubt vital to their livelihood, was about to be beaten to death. The couple began throwing rocks at their animal’s assailant and pelted him several times. They did not realize this young man was the son of an important man in town. The young man hurled a string of expletives at the couple as he retreated but swore he would get even with them.

That night, a party of men, led by the wealthy merchant and his son, stealthily approached the young family’s cabin and set fire to it with torches. The heavily armed men refused to allow anyone inside the cabin to leave. Desperate, the man of the house attempted to make a break for it in the hopes that his wife and children could escape while he distracted their attackers. Alas, he was gunned down almost immediately upon setting foot outside the cabin. The screams of the woman and her children as they burned alive were heard up and down the creek for over a mile.

Just as the mob was sure that their unholy task was complete, a figure, engulfed in flames, smashed through what was left of one of the cabin windows and staggered toward the stunned and now terrified men. The woman’s hands seemed to have been burned down to mere nubs and her face appeared to have melted or sagged to the point that it was unnaturally long and deformed. The poor creature’s clothes were gone, burned away, revealing skin charred completely black yet, somehow, still on fire. The wretched creature that had once been a happy, sod-busting wife and mother let out a bone-chilling wail and then staggered past the men and hurled herself off the bank and into the waters of Elm Creek. The criminal mob followed to the point from which she had launched herself into the black water but saw no trace of her. Her body, it is said, was never found.

Since that terrible night, travelers who tarry too long on or near the bridge have occasionally reported terrifying run-ins with the “Donkey Lady.” Horrible screeching and screaming is reported from time to time emanating from under the bridge or the surrounding woods. Some have claimed a malevolent creature of some kind has dropped onto the hood or roof of their vehicle, screamed loudly and scratched and clawed at the windows in an attempt to get at them. Photos exist of damage allegedly done to vehicles by the “Donkey Lady.” It is said that if you park on the bridge, shut off your headlights and wait, you will almost certainly encounter something truly terrifying.

I have absolutely no idea how much, if any, of the above tale is true. I’ve become familiar with other versions in the years since I heard this account. Whether they contain more or less truth than the version I grew up with is something I just can’t say. I do tend to believe that there is some germ of truth in the “Donkey Lady” legends. The tale has endured far too long for that not to be the case, in my opinion.

What interests me more than whether or not the stories are true is what people are still seeing on or near the Elm Creek Bridge. Could there be a flesh and blood creature responsible for the legends? If so, what could it be? Many have screwed up their courage and ventured under the bridge to examine the muddy bank for clues. Some have come back with photos of hoof-like tracks. Is this proof that the “Donkey Lady” exists? I would hesitate to say that. This is Texas, after all, and finding the tracks of a horse or mule anywhere in this state, even under the “Donkey Lady Bridge,” would not be all that unusual; however, whatever haunts this bridge and the surrounding woods is still seen on occasion and is heard more often than that to this very day. If anyone out there reading this post has had any experiences at the “Donkey Lady Bridge,” I’d love to hear about them.

I’ll, no doubt, receive criticism from some for this post. To some degree this is understandable, as the tale of the “Donkey Lady” of Elm Creek seems more of a ghost story than anything else. Still, ghosts typically don’t dent hoods or leave hoof-like tracks in the mud of creek banks. Maybe there is a biological explanation for the legends. If so, then the story of the San Antonio “Donkey Lady” definitely belongs here. In addition, I’ve inadvertently become something of an amateur folklorist while doing research on historical sightings of wild men, black panthers and river monsters. I’ve run across all kinds of interesting stuff and I have a hard time not sharing a great story.

Whatever you believe the truth behind the “Donkey Lady” legend, you must admit…

… it’s a heck of a good story.

* To visit the “Donkey Lady Bridge” in San Antonio, Texas, start at the intersection of Jett Road and Loop 1604 south of San Antonio. Go 1.9 miles north on Jett Road. The bridge is on the left (north) side of the road. It used to be the intersection of the Old Applewhite and Jett Roads. It is now the Old Applewhite Bridge Trailhead.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Black Panthers: Photographic Evidence At Last?

This post will be much heavier on photos than writing. That is good news as a picture truly is worth a thousand words. That being said, let’s go.

Two different readers have sent me photos of large cats over the last couple of weeks. Both sets of photos come from South Texas and both are interesting in their own way. I’ll take them one at a time.

The first two photos come from Uvalde County. The photos clearly show what appears to be a large, long-tailed cat of some kind. It is unusual in that the markings of the cat appear to be a cross between what you would expect to see on a bobcat and what you see on a common domestic/feral cat. The photo where the cat is in motion is the most interesting as it makes the cat look lean and extremely muscular. The photo where the cat is walking slowly gives a slightly different impression. It appears very, very thick, almost beefy. The head is very bobcat-like but the long tail eliminates the bob as a possibility.

My response to the reader who sent me these photos was as follows:

The cat seems very large but there is nothing in the picture of known size to provide scale. At first glance, it seems as if the cat would be as long as the rutted road is wide, however, it could be a trick of perspective as the road is at an angle to your camera.

The coloring of the cat is very much like that of a common barn or house cat. The feet seem small for a truly big cat. It does seem very thick though.

What complicates matters even more is that I get a different impression from each of the two photos. The picture where the cat is moving slowly gives me the impression of a big feral cat. The impression I get of the cat where it is jumping/running is quite different. In that photo it appears much more lean and less "fluffy" looking.

The thing to do would be to get back to the site and photograph yourself or someone/ something else of a known size in that spot. Make sure the camera is in the same location. You could also measure the height of that small piece of brush the cat is walking by. If that is only a foot or so high then we know the cat is small. If it is 3 feet tall then we have something else all together.

Please let me know if you decide to go back and take some photos for scale.

The next set of photos also originates from South Texas. To me, they are more intriguing than the first set. The series of shots clearly show a cat of some kind that is a very dark charcoal gray to black in color. According to the reader who sent the photos to me, the pictures were taken from a pretty good distance using a telephoto lens. When the photos were shown to Texas Parks & Wildlife personnel, he was told he had pictures of either a bear or a coyote. There is one photo in the series where I can sort of see how someone might think “bear”… if I squint really hard. To say bear OR coyote is almost laughable to me as the two species do not resemble each other in the least.

In my opinion, these are clearly pictures of a cat. That is really about all I can say. Are these photos proof of the existence of the ever-elusive “black panther?” Alas, no. Even the reader who sent the photos knows this to be the case as he said, “those are the absolute best photos I've seen from anyone who sighted a black cat, and still they're not definitive!” His willingness to admit this makes me doubt very much that we are looking at some sort of hoax.

My response to the gentleman who sent the photos was as follows:

The shots are very intriguing. The problem is there is nothing in them to indicate scale. That being the case, it is hard to say how close the photographer was to the animal or how big it might have been. I can tell you it is NOT a coyote or a bear. It is a cat. Just don't know how large.

If you are beginning to think that all these photos seem to have the same issue (scale) then you are correct. It is just impossible to say how big this cat really was by looking at the photos. Critics will point out that the photographer could have been very close to the animal and it is nothing more than a normal domestic-sized cat. While I believe the story of the reader who sent these pictures, I can’t prove that such a critic is wrong. It cuts to the heart of the fact that a photograph alone will likely never suffice as definitive proof that the black panthers of Texas are a reality. They do, however, provide another anecdotal piece to this puzzle. Slowly but surely, we seem to be gaining ground on these elusive “ghost cats.”

*Please continue to forward me any reports and/or photographs of strange, odd or out of place animals. Feel free to make short comments to the post or, if you want to provide more detail or send a photo, use the email address.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Black Bears, Bigfoot and the Jacobs Creature

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the most common bear species in the world. In fact, their population is more than twice that of all the other bear species in the world combined. There are many reasons that the black bear has survived in greater numbers than other bears. One such reason is that they are typically not all that aggressive. Most black bears prefer to run away from conflict or climb a tree to avoid a fight. More aggressive bears, like the grizzly, stand their ground and often pay with their lives because of it. Another reason is that black bears are sort of the coyotes of the bruin world. What I mean by that is they have adapted far better to living in close quarters to humans than other bear species have, much as coyotes have thrived while wolves have declined. They are fantastic and fascinating animals but they are causing some problems in the area of wood ape research. Often black bear spoor is mistaken or passed off as ape sign. While problematic, this pales to the issues raised when a trail camera photographs a bear in an awkward position. The cry of “bigfoot” goes up and no amount of reason seems to ever quiet it.

Allow me to illustrate my point just a bit. A few weeks ago, a photograph captured by a NAWAC game camera was circulated among the members by one of our Board of Directors. Little explanation was given as to the what, where and when behind the photo. Opinions as to what the animal in the photo might be were solicited. The photo that was circulated is below:

As you can see, the image is quite startling and different than what we are used to seeing in most game camera photos. Some members became pretty excited at the possibility that one of our cameras had finally captured an image of a wood ape. Other, more conservative members were not so sure and sought other explanations. The only thing we absolutely knew was that the photo showed a large, upright and hairy creature of some kind. Some members saw more detail in the photo than others. The whole thing was discussed for the better part of two days. The consensus was that the photo, while intriguing, was inconclusive and had little to no evidentiary value.

After the membership had their chance to look at and discuss the photo, the Board member who originally circulated the picture provided the next photo, taken only seconds after the first image, to the membership. The identity of the creature in the photo was now quite clear. Our good friend, Ursus americanus, an American black bear.

The point of the exercise is really pretty obvious. It was a reminder to never jump to conclusions. Think with your head and not your heart. Approach everything with a skeptical eye. Know what wildlife is native to the area. I could go on but you get the idea. The membership did take one more thing from this exercise and that is that black bears can contort themselves into some pretty awkward looking positions. When they do this in front of cameras, the result can be a photograph of an animal that few would look at and think, “bear.” This has, in my opinion, led to at least one super-charged controversy. I’m talking about the “Jacobs photo."

In September of 2007, a Pennsylvania hunter named R. Jacobs placed a Bushnell IR game camera on a game trail in order to get an idea of what sort of deer he might encounter during the upcoming hunting season. I don’t know how many shots of deer Mr. Jacobs captured but I do know he got a few really odd looking photos of what looked like a very lean, and somewhat scraggly-looking, primate of some kind. The photos became an internet sensation and were acclaimed by many as hard evidence that an undocumented primate does roam the forests of Pennsylvania. I will admit to being very intrigued and a bit excited when I first viewed the photos. It is a strange and weird looking creature. The more I looked into the photos, however, the stronger my feelings became that these pictures were nothing more than a black bear in an odd pose.

There are several reasons that I feel the way I do about the Jacobs photo. The first reason I feel it is a bear is that bear photos were taken immediately before the odd images. To be clear and fair, these bear photos were not snapped seconds before the shot of the Jacobs creature. Two bear cubs were photographed about 28 minutes before the odd image was captured. This is just a bit too coincidental to be merely brushed aside, in my opinion. In the NAWAC’s main study area, black bears are common. I’ve observed bears myself on more than one occasion there and their sign is not hard to come by. Additionally, our game cameras have captured hundreds of bear photos over the years. I have never observed bears, or seen fresh sign of them, during periods when what I believe to be wood ape activity was taking place. They seem to sort of fade away into the forest when wood-knocking, odd vocalizations, cabin slapping and the like are taking place. I suppose it is possible that I’m reading too much into that but, in my mind, it seems that bears tend to make themselves scarce when wood apes are in the area. IF that is true then an ape being photographed less than half an hour after multiple bears were captured by the same camera seems unlikely.

Another factor that swayed me a bit toward the Jacobs creature being a bear was the relative small size of it. The BFRO did a pretty good job of doing size comparisons between the creature in question, deer and the bear cubs that were all photographed in the same spot by the same game camera. I have not included those images here (a bit wary of copyright issues) but you can view them here. If you scroll down near the bottom of this page you will see quite clearly that the Jacobs creature is not much larger than the small bear cubs and is not even as high at the shoulder as the pretty average looking whitetail deer doe. I realize that if wood apes are real animals they would breed and, thus, produce young. Too, I realize that those who believe the Jacobs creature to be an ape think that it was a juvenile. Again, the presence of bear cubs of similar size in a photo taken just 28 minutes earlier plays into my belief that the Jacobs creature is likely a yearling black bear.

The biggest factor that convinced me that the Jacobs creature was a young black bear was the very thing that intrigued me in the first place, the strange position of the animal. I must admit that it is an awkward looking pose and it doesn’t take too much imagination to start seeing “primate.” After going through many of the NAWAC bear photos, however, I began to realize that the awkward pose of the Jacobs creature might not be so unusual after all. As you can see from the photos below, these bears have been photographed in strikingly similar poses. Admittedly, I don’t have an exact match where the head of the bear is down and out of site as it is in the Jacobs photo but you can clearly see that the position of the body of these bears is all but identical. Even the back paws of these bears appear abnormally elongated, more like a foot than a paw. Imagine if the head of these bears was hung low and tucked out of site. You would have a virtual dead ringer for the Jacobs creature.

Critics of the black bear hypothesis point to the skinny and, seemingly scraggily, appearance of the creature and to the fact that the bear cubs are noticeably darker in color. True, these factors add to the effect. Some have posited that the Jacobs creature was suffering from mange or some other skin problem, which had caused its irregular appearance. Maybe. Certainly the appearance of the Jacobs creature coincides with what has been an explosion of sightings of mange-ridden animals of all types over the last decade. Bears, foxes, raccoons, coyotes… you name it (This also plays into the huge jump in “chupacabras,” or blue dog sightings, in my opinion). I’m not so sure that the Jacobs creature is mangy at all. Is it possible the reason it is of a different tint than the bear cubs is simply because it is a different color? “Black bear” is really a misnomer. While American black bears are predominantly black, reddish-cinnamon, brown and even blonde bears are not uncommon. Maybe this bear is not black at all. Surely, that would make for a different appearance than that of the obviously jet black cubs photographed earlier.

Other critics of the bear theory point to the lean appearance of the creature. A bear would be fatter. Certainly, the cubs photographed 28 minutes before the odd creature were healthier looking animals, much more like the stereotypical picture of a bear we are used to seeing. I think it very possible that this is a sibling of those fat cubs but one from the previous year's litter. A yearling bear is a lot like a preteen human. They are often thin and gangly and have yet to begin “filling out.” Bears do go through a large part of the year where they are relatively thin. They typically don’t get that stereotypical chubby look until they are almost ready to begin hibernating. Would a yearling bear still be hanging around its mother and younger siblings? Maybe. Bear cubs are totally dependent on their mother’s milk for the first 30 weeks of their lives but there is more of a range when it comes to the age when they reach full independence. Typically, black bear cubs leave their mother between the ages of 16-18 months but sometimes linger up until they are 24 months old. IF this is a yearling bear it is very possible that it is simply the “big brother” to the younger cubs photographed a bit earlier that is still not quite ready to leave mom.

I realize this has been a hotly debated topic among researchers. Some have expressed open hostility to anyone that questions the “fact” that the Jacobs creature is a juvenile wood ape. I may be stirring up a bit of a hornet’s nest by bringing it up again here but that is ok. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider when it comes to the bigfoot community anyway. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to provoke anyone or stir up trouble. I also want to stress that I do not feel the Jacobs photo is a hoax; rather, I feel it is a misidentification. Simply, I’m expressing my opinion on what has become a very well known incident in the wood ape world. My belief that the wood ape is a real flesh and blood animal is not dependent upon the Jacobs photo, or any other photograph for that matter. What I know and what I’ve seen doesn’t tumble like a house of cards if the Jacobs creature is just a black bear. I’m not sure that is true for a lot of others out there.

Regardless of my opinions, the debate over the Jacobs creature and exactly what it was will continue to rage. It strengthens my belief that no photograph or video footage will ever be enough to prove the existence of the wood ape to mainstream science. Like it or not, we are going to need more.