The following is reprinted from November 2013
When I was a boy growing up in Warren County, on our farm lived several sharecropper families. Back then, as now, the county was heavily rural, and sharecroppers lived on many of the farms. They were hard working, and for the most part, were honest and God-fearing people. Many of them had no electricity or running water, and they grew most of their food on the land. Many of the men chewed tobacco and liked a good shot of “shine,” mostly on weekends, and some of the women folks dipped snuff and chewed sweet gum toothbrushes.
Another thing they did, which tied in with living off the land, and for pleasure, was hunting. Wildlife was quite abundant back then because there were vast areas of wild habitat and wilderness. I, being a kid, played with and associated with the children of the sharecropper families, including hunting. I was also privileged to their folklore and certain secrets that the upper class folks never knew. I was constantly spellbound as I listened to the adults telling of their prowess in hunting and in other things.
Every once in a while, they would tell of seeing a panther. In fact, it wasn’t all that rare. Those men spent a lot of time way out in extremely isolated and dense environments, and they saw things that no one else saw.
Undoubtedly, some of the creatures they saw were large wild animals that resembled panthers, and in the places they hunted, it was easy for one’s eyes to play tricks on him. But I know now, and it to took me half my lifetime to understand it, some of those sightings and encounters were of actual panthers.
Panther, mountain lion, cougar, all the same animal, was the source of many a tale told in the eerie light of a fire in the flue of a tobacco barn curing tobacco. I, being a young boy, was fascinated by the accounts of the men who claimed to have come in contact with, or seen close up, such a mysterious creature, Sometimes, as we sat around the fire late in the night, there would come a blood curdling scream from somewhere close by in the dark. One of the men would say, “That’s one of them panthers!” I know now that it was not a panther, but a screech owl. I very much wanted to see a panther, and little did I know that one day one would almost tear my shirt off.
The passing years grew me into a young man, and in each of those years, there were several reported sightings of panthers. It grew into kind of a debate between the local country folks who declared they had seen, and some of them being really close up, panthers, and the wildlife officials in Raleigh who stood firm, saying there were no cougars (another name for panthers) in North Carolina except in zoos and other places of captivity.
I was amused when I heard that an old farmer had called Raleigh to report that he had just seen a cougar in his pasture. The official insisted that what he had seen was actually a deer, calf or large dog and not a cougar because no cougars exist in North Carolina. Slightly incensed, the old farmer replied, “Well, if I see it again, I’m going to shoot it.”
At which the official said, “Sir, if you do that, you will be in a lot of trouble.” The farmer then asked, “How can I get in trouble over something that doesn’t exist?”
In all of those years, and for all of the reported sightings of cougars, I was not able to see one for myself. A person of lesser intrigue would probably have sided with the wildlife officials, but I personally knew many of the people who insisted that they had seen them, and I knew them to be honest and sincere. In my heart, I knew that those big wildcats were out there.
In later years and well into middle age, while in the military service, during holidays and while on leave, I spent as much time as I could hunting, fishing and rambling through wild places. It was during one of those times that something happened that proved cougars did exist in North Carolina in the wild, although this didn’t happen in Warren County.
I had taken a few days leave to go fishing at the Triple S pier at Atlantic Beach. The owner of a gas station was a man from the little town of Kittrell in Vance County and close to my home in Warren County. I had been fishing at the Triple S for many years, and the owner of that gas station had become a friend. At that time, that area had not been developed and was thick and dense with reeds and wind-swept cedars. One day, as I was buying gas, I told the owner of my fascination with cougars and that I believed that, in spite of so much disbelief, that they were in existence in North Carolina.
He said that I was absolutely right and asked if I would like to see one. Of course I did, so he closed his gas station for a few minutes, and I followed him down a narrow path behind his gas station and through a dense thicket of reeds and wind-swept cedars to a small opening. There, I saw a huge, live female cougar in a cage.
—Continued next week—