Over the holidays, I received an email from a gentleman named Cade ***** (he provided his last name but I am withholding it). Attached to the email was a very intriguing photograph. According to Cade, the photograph was taken by a game camera in Oklahoma. The camera actually belongs to a friend of Cade’s and was deployed on his deer lease. The photograph in question features a, seemingly, large and muscular mystery animal with a long tail. The head of the animal is down and partially obscured by tall grass which makes positive identification difficult. Cade found the photo interesting and felt that it might show a “black panther.” He did a bit of research online and that is what led him to me.
I found the photo very interesting and was, initially, quite excited by it. Clearly the animal is solid black and has a long tail. At first glance, the body of the creature seemed very cat-like and “slinky” with a big chest and tapered abdomen. The neck appears thick and strong and the ear that is partially visible seems to stand up in a manner that is reminiscent of a cat. Could this finally be it, a photograph of the long-tailed black cat so commonly referred to as a black panther here in the South? I asked Cade to go back to his friend in an attempt to get more details on the photo. Where was it taken? How high was the camera set? What was the approximate distance between the camera and the animal? Could I get a copy of the original uncropped/non-zoomed photo? What was the brand/model of the camera? There were other questions but you get the idea.
As I waited for Cade to get back to me, I continued to pour over the photo. While still intrigued, I began to have some doubts as to whether or not the animal in the picture was a cat. I showed the photo to some friends of mine who are experienced hunters and outdoorsmen and know their wildlife. Their responses were a bit mixed and raised even more questions in my mind. I will briefly touch on my concerns below.
First, the “slinky” build that I initially felt looked cat-like is really anything but. I started pulling up and inspecting photos of big cats, particularly cougars and jaguars which are found in the Americas. The tapered body seen in the photograph is actually not the norm at all for these two species. This is key as IF there is a black big cat of some sort roaming North America, it is highly likely to be a melanistic jaguar or cougar (I realize that no black cougars have ever been documented. I include a melanistic, or very dark, cougar as a suspect based simply on the size most often reported by people claiming to have seen black panthers, which closely matches the size of adult cougars, and the fact that this is one of the two big cats native to North America). What I found is that, most of the time, both jaguars and cougars are very thick and do not show much, if any, taper from their chest to their abdomen/pelvis. Below you can see a sampling of photos of both jaguars and cougars where this is evident. It is true that some of these big cats do, on occasion, exhibit this tapering but it seems to be the exception and seen most often in very young, very old or sick animals. I expanded my search to other big cats of the world and found the same thing to be true.
The second, and biggest, concern I have is also anatomical in nature. The animal in the photo is clearly a male. That, in and of itself, is not an issue; but, as I thought back on photos of cats of all shapes and sizes I have seen over the years, I could not recall seeing a penis sheath in any of the photos. I, myself, have captured many photos of bobcats via trail camera, surely some of them were males, but never could I say for sure based solely on the picture. I did some research and the reason for this became clear, the genitalia of a male cat is, for lack of a better term, seated differently than that of a canine. I believe the diagrams below illustrate this perfectly.
The photo of the African lion below clearly shows the anatomical characteristics of these big cats. No reproductive organs are seen directly below the pelvis/abdomen; however, the testicles can clearly be seen under the tail. Compare this photo to that of a male Great Dane. The penis sheath is clearly visible under the abdomen/pelvis of the dog. The animal in the game camera photo clearly exhibits a penis sheath like that of a dog. This anatomical feature is simply not present in cats of any size. That being the case, the animal in this photo cannot be a mountain lion, jaguar, jaguarundi or any other type of cat.
As much as I would like to think the Oklahoma photo is a big cat of some kind, the facts simply do not bear this out. Based on the evidence at hand, the only logical conclusion I can make is that this is a photo of a dog of some kind. It appears to be quite a robust dog, but a dog, none the less. The dog’s build (big chest and narrow abdomen), long curled up tail, pointed ears, dark color and thick neck actually remind me quite a bit of my Dutch Shepherd. Unlike the dog in the Oklahoma photo, my Dutch is a female which makes comparing the location and appearance of reproductive organs impossible. Even so, the build, ears, neck and tail are very similar. My dog weighs in at 60 lbs. and stands about 24” high. I will admit that the animal in the Oklahoma photo appears more robust and bigger than the shepherd in the photo below; however, it must be remembered that there is nothing in the photo to provide scale and this could be an illusion. The bottom line, however, is that the animal in the Oklahoma photo is almost certainly a dog.
I would love to be proven wrong on this, somehow, but the anatomy is just not right as it does not match that of any known cat. Some might argue that black panthers are not a known species; therefore, comparing their anatomy to known cats is not a valid way of reaching a conclusion. My response to that opinion would simply be that whatever black panthers are, they are cats. That being the case, it is not an unreasonable hypothesis to think their anatomy is similar to that of the other cats inhabiting our planet.
While I was disappointed that the animal in this photo turned out to be a dog, I am greatly encouraged that Cade was able to find me and submit the picture for inspection. This is occurring more and more often which tells me that my site is popping up on Google and other search engines when people query “black panthers.” I am very hopeful that the photo we are all waiting for will eventually be captured.
Let us hope it is soon.