The calls come in to Jay Butfiloski fairly regularly.
Someone has seen a black panther in South Carolina. Or got a photo of one on a trail camera.
Breathless or indignant, they pronounce something on the order of you wildlife guys don’t know what you’re talking about.
Butfiloski, a wildlife biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources who specializes in fur-bearing animals, takes it in stride.
“Plenty of sightings, zero proof,” he said of the story that never dies.
Black panthers roaming the woods of South Carolina!
All over the state!
Marietta, Travelers Rest, Wadmalaw Island, Horry County, a Tabor City, North Carolina hunt club.
Upon further review of photos from those places, Butfiloski found each is actually a picture from a wildlife facility in South Africa run by Kevin Richardson, who calls himself the lion whisperer and works with film crews and does animal presentations to support the sanctuary.
Can we say Photoshop?
“You can take out the cat and move it to another location,” he said.
He did it himself. Placed the photo of the animal in a background that looks like rural South Carolina.
Butfiloski said other photos he’s seen from trail cameras have actually been domestic house cats.
“In a lot of cases it is just misidentification and your mind convinces yourself that you saw it,” he said. “Could have been a dog, cat, bobcat, coyote (which also can be black), or even and otter (especially at a distance). Some wild animals may only appear briefly and your mind can struggle with what you just saw.”
Low light is also a factor, he said.
“It’s hard to judge the size of something at a distance or from just a photograph without real good size references around it,” he said.
He has a great example of how photos can be distorted.
“You see this a lot with ‘giant’ snake photographs, where the person holds the snake away from them but towards the camera, making the snake appear way larger than it really is.”
Hoaxes often stem from people trolling friends or they’re gullible.
“Many may even suspect it’s fake but will pass it along as a warning ‘just in case’ it’s true. These seem to spread like wildfire, he said.
And he notes the language people use about these cats is just plain wrong.
“There is no species such as a black panther,” he said. “What people commonly call black panthers are really melanistic (or black color phase) jaguars and leopards.”
Darkening of the fur does not occur in cougars anywhere in the United States or in mountain lions, catamounts, pumas and Florida panthers.
“Whatever you want to call them, they are all brown,” he said. ”So for someone to truly see a ‘black panther,’ they would have had to have seen a melanistic jaguar or melanistic leopard, both of which do not occur here outside of captivity.”
Also, sightings wouldn’t be a one-off.
“Areas that have populations of big cats do not go unnoticed,” he said. “ They leave behind tracks and other evidence of their presence on a regular basis.”
If you want to see black leopards or jaguars you’re going to have to go Southwestern China, Burma, Nepal, Southern India, Indonesia, and the southern part of Malaysia.
Not Horry County.