EASTERN PANTHERS OF MY ACQUAINTANCE
An animal not officially recognized in Maine has given some excellent accounts of itself.
This describes a close encounter with a panther near Lincoln, Maine. It occurred about five hours after dark, Friday 24 October 2003, about six miles outside the town of Lincoln, where I live. I say panther because Bruce Wright, former Director of the Northeastern Wildlife Station at the University of New Brunswick, has argued persuasively for that name, rather than mountain lion, cougar, puma, and so forth, especially in his book, The Eastern Panther — A Question of Survival (1972), which I read while still in college and which I still own.
The village of Lincoln, population about 6,000, is situated six miles off Interstate 95 and just above the 45th parallel. An uninhabited wilderness the size of Connecticut lies immediately to the east and a similarly uninhabited region the size of Belgium lies to the west-northwest. Interstate 95 and the Penobscot River run north-south, roughly parallel, a few miles apart, and serve to separate the two wilderness regions.
It is significant to note a few things about myself: I have a B.S. in wildlife management from the University of Maine (1977), I am a Registered Maine Guide, I have lived and traveled in the vast north-central interior of the state (lived in towns from Old Town to Millinocket and tromped the woods from Allagash Lake to Hurricane to Grand Lake Stream) since 1973, and I claim but one previous panther sighting, 29 years before this one. What’s more, I am not on any meds, I do not smoke anything funny, and on the night of this encounter I was not inebriated (or dozing and dreaming).
As for the previous sighting, a dark-coated panther crossed the unfinished Interstate before me in daylight in the spring of 1974, about two miles northwest of this Friday’s occurrence, but the earlier encounter would not have been convincing to anyone but myself and a passenger in my car, had there been one at the time.
In the 1974 encounter, a long, low, smooth-moving creature, the color of a chocolate lab or darker, swiftly crossed the highway from east to west 300-400 yards in front of the car. It moved as sleekly as a torpedo and seemed just as fast. I have also seen dogs, bears, and other dark animals run at full tilt while crossing the road or crossing my path, and nothing else moves like this. A bear, for example, runs like an out-of-round truck tire.
From 1974 until November 2002 I had seen nothing else to suggest a panther. While deer hunting about 15 miles east of Lincoln in 2002, I came across and photographed some tracks in the snow that also could have belonged to nothing else but a panther, but I found no other evidence. (It goes without saying that a cat print will not include a claw mark, as a dog’s will. But, while a panther may weigh six times as much as a lynx, the tracks of a lynx can be slightly larger than those of a panther, and less distinct as well, chiefly due to the fur between the toes. A panther’s fore prints and hind prints are all roughly three inches long and three inches wide, smaller than most people would probably expect. If anything, a panther’s fore prints are a half inch wider, making the fore print larger than the hind print.)
In support of my qualifications to identify the animal, during my last year of undergraduate study in the 1970s, I approached my advisory team at the University of Maine, who included Malcolm Coulter and Bucky Owen, about pursuing graduate work on the eastern panther. In spite of my 1974 sighting, they discouraged me, citing the lack of evidence for the species in Maine and the difficulty in collecting any evidence, all of which I understood and eventually accepted. (DNA analysis of scat, one of the strongest verifications of a resident animal, was not yet in the researcher’s arsenal.) Henry Hilton was completing his graduate work on the eastern coyote at that time, and he too dismissed the idea, stating that he had never encountered a panther while researching coyotes. To which I say, I have never encountered a pine marten, but should my lack of an encounter persuade someone else that they don’t exist?
I am acquainted with two individuals with whom I have worked locally, both of whom live in Carroll, Maine, (where I photographed the above tracks), who have both had close encounters with panthers near their homes. I am also well-acquainted with another local resident who had an October 2004 sighting similar to my October 2003 encounter and in nearly the same place, then the same person saw it again in October or November 2005 from within her car, at which time the cat sat at the edge of the road and tolerated being stared at for a few moments. But this is not about anyone else’s sightings. Theirs merely help corroborate mine, I think.
For this current incident, it was about 10:00 p.m. I was the front seat passenger and my wife, Beth, was driving — since it was her brand new 2003 GMC Envoy; I drive my good old pickup. She was also in conversation with a passenger in the back seat, directly behind me. We had just come south from Medway on Interstate 95 and had turned eastward, toward Lincoln, onto the Access Road (now called the River Road), a two-lane blacktop, closely wooded on both sides, with normal highway markings, at least two miles from any built-up area of any kind and five miles from the outskirts of town. There were no other vehicles anywhere nearby. There was no snow or rain and the pavement was dry. Exit 227 off the Interstate is in township T2-R8, but the Chester town line is a few yards east of the exit ramp. We were not up to normal speed yet, probably crossing the town line at about 30 mph, when the headlights picked up a long, low, tawny creature crossing the road ahead from left to right in one smooth motion.
It seemed to be neither walking nor running but gliding purposefully. I recall the motion of the legs and the immediate impression that they were muscular. When the headlights first picked it up, it was maybe 25-30 yards away. At first glimpse it was not yet in our lane, but was still crossing the left lane, and it turned to face the car as it continued to glide or slink across the road directly in front of us. When it turned toward us and was still on the pavement, the headlights picked up the close-set eyes glowing yellow, the right one — the near one — illuminated more brightly than the other. It then turned away so the eyes weren’t visible but the body still was was.
From nose to rump it spanned more than half the width of the lane we were in, in fact its body seemed to stretch from the center stripe to the side stripe, which I realize was the impression, not the reality. The tail was not readily apparent except the portion of it that stretched out behind the hind feet, but, if the bulk of the tail lay close to the rump, it may have been easy to miss. At the shoulders it was not quite as tall as a whitetail doe. It was as tall at the hips as it was at the shoulders. It took no more than two seconds from the moment I saw it for it to reach the right-hand edge of the pavement.
When initially I caught sight of the animal, I shouted “Look at that!” — or that’s what I was trying to say; it certainly did not come out intelligibly. My wife, Beth, who had been turned toward me but talking to our passenger in the back, obediently broke off conversation and let off the gas because I shouted, but she looked at me rather than at the road, suspecting that I was choking, I suppose, so she began to steer toward the shoulder of the road to stop. As the car slowed, the animal, which proceeded to clear the edge of the pavement on the right, stopped and crouched in the tall weeds on the sloping road embankment and turned toward us again. The eyes once more glowed a brassy yellow, both equally brightly, as it faced our approaching car and remained crouched for a few second longer.
Once we closed within about 15 feet of it, the side lights on the bumper, which illuminate things on the side back about as far as the front wheel well, kept it in view until it was nearly beside my door — and that’s where it still sat, head nearly even with the car’s side mirror, when the car came to a complete stop. Once again I was staring into its illuminated eyes. At that point it turned and I lost sight of it, although I believed I saw movement deeper in the ditch for another second, then nothing more. Maybe six to eight seconds passed during which it was visible, so I was barely able to utter anything coherent and assumed, incorrectly, that the others were watching what I was. In fact, just as the animal began to disappear I wrenched the door handle as if to leap out. Beth yipped: “What are you doing?” or words to that effect. That stopped me. I replied, sheepishly, to the effect that I thought I ought to tackle it and hold it down until the authorities could arrive. She then let the car pick up speed and we went on our way. Afterward, Beth could say only that she saw its eyes and a long body, and by the time we arrived home a few minutes later she could still verify nothing more than that. The passenger, directly behind me, didn’t see the cat at all.
To the left, a little beyond where the animal had emerged from the cover of the woods just before I saw it, is a dirt road, which was, at that time, frequented by local residents but which was gated a couple of years later. That road winds through the woods for two miles or so to a single-track railroad crossing. To the left and right of the Access Road are dozens of square miles of bogs, brooks, low ridges, the railroad line, a cleared electrical pole line, traces of tote roads, and a few miles of dirt roads. It encompasses a lot of varied habitat and a lot of edge. The area has a sizable population of deer, moose, beaver, and other species of interest to a resident predator.
That pretty much describes that Friday’s encounter. It also happened to be my birthday and the sighting was a terrific birthday bonus.
I realize that a whitetail doe or a young deer stands little more than the height of a car hood, and I have encountered literally dozens of whitetail deer along the roads every year in this area. Friday’s animal was considerably lower and longer than a deer, and its large, luminous eyes were forward-facing and too closely set for an ungulate.
We are also accustomed to encountering moose on the roads a few times a year, sometimes at night, and could not confuse this even with a young moose. A black bear is never tawny, and does not glide smoothly while running but almost “rolls” when it runs, like a cartoon character. Coyotes are plentiful here but will trot or lope along in the open with casual indifference to automobiles, much like a fox. Coyotes don’t move with cat-like smoothness, nor does a coyote span half the width of a highway lane. I have watched coyotes in numerous encounters. A wolf — like the panther, rare if present — stands and runs in a manner nothing like a cat. I have seen otters in and out of the water, as well as minks and fishers in the wild and I once put up a fisher pelt for study (and had another one mounted by a taxidermist). This animal was neither otter nor fisher (or marten). The creature was so unlike a raccoon or porcupine as to not even warrant discussion. It was simply an enormous cat. A man-sized cat, and even more than that, for a man’s body stretched across the roadway would not have spanned the distance from neck to rump that this creature spanned.
While my degree is in wildlife ecology and wildlife management and would have qualified me for work as a game warden or wildlife biologist, I have spent 23 years in management at Great Northern Paper Company and have spent thousands of hours traveling the woods in Maine north of the 45th parallel. I roam the woods on foot whenever I can in all seasons. (I don’t own a four-wheeler or a snowmobile.) I pay attention to the evidence of every kind of creature. I have traveled the entire Golden Road system numerous times, and I spend much of each summer at a camp in the unorganized township of T1-R9 (Ambajejus Lake). I hunt deer, upland birds, and ducks. I tote a canoe all spring and summer and pretend to fish. I always carry a camera, although not always a good one. I recognize many animals and birds by their fleeting movements or their giveaway markings — a pileated woodpecker’s flight, a moose’s amble, a coyote’s trot, a flicker’s rump. I know the tail on a panther is key to identification. I don’t claim to have discerned a distinct tail on the animal I saw in October 2003, however if it was held closely and low, it may have contributed to the impression of body length instead. I have to argue that I did my best to observe and record accurately what I saw during that encounter. But I did so with the near shock of realizing instantly that I was seeing the thing that I had most wanted to see in the wild as long as I have lived here. And a panther is precisely what I saw.
By the way, here’s a photo of a fisher. I recovered this one as a fresh road kill and had it mounted. Its body, with head, is about as long as my arm. This is one animal that, according to some officials, people have mistaken for a panther.
In the fall of 2014, while hunting deer, I sat myself on a granite boulder with my back toward a stand of poplar with no understory, so that I was overlooking an expanse of open land, to wait and watch (for deer). Presently, I heard something behind me and to my right that was disturbing the crisply-frozen leaves. It scampered for a second or two, stopped, scampered again, stopped, and kept it up. I expected a squirrel, although I had not been scolded from above as a squirrel usually does. Slowly I turned my head to peer over my right shoulder and watched a fisher, 25 feet behind me, run a few steps, paw the ground and sniff, and repeat. It gave no heed to my movement but continued to explore. I even pulled my cell phone out of a vest pocket and took a picture, which showed absolutely nothing thanks to its wide angle and poor resolution. The fisher, foraging purposefully alongside fallen logs, eventually pursued its quest far off to my left rear as if I had never been there. I could no sooner mistake it for a panther than I could, say, a pickerel.
To substantiate evidence of a population, state-paid biologists and academic researchers want photos from identifiable places, or scat, fur, near-perfect tracks, bones or a whole carcass, or (best of all?) a road kill. And even a single piece of evidence such as my sighting only suggests that a pet panther was released and was later spotted. Some say, “If there is a population of panthers here, sooner or later someone will discover a carcass of one that has died, or its bones.” Well, I have rarely found a carcass or whole skeleton of anything that died in the woods.
I have picked up moose and deer antlers (sheds), miscellaneous individual bones, including a skull now and then, with no skeleton nearby, and only twice have I found a whole skeleton — one of a moose, and the other of a bobcat, shown below. You would think that the skull of a bear, moose, or deer would be a pretty common find. Well, it’s not. This is from a lifetime of tromping the woods. And there is good reason for that. Rodents, especially, up to the size of porcupines, and other ground creatures, gnaw on skeletal remains chiefly for the calcium within a season. Bones and antlers being devoured eventually lose their distinctive shape. Any bones not quickly devoured turn brownish like the botanical litter on the ground, or may eventually become bleached for a while but later become one with the duff and moss in which they lie. So, having never tripped over a deer skeleton or a bear skull, either of which seems as though it should be really easy to find, I am not at all surprised that I have never stumbled onto a lion skull in the woods of Maine.
I did have a large Zip-lock bag with me when I found this bobcat skeleton. I gathered the entire thing and, even though it was stretched out over nearly three feet of ground, it fit inside that bag. This was near Mattamiscontis Stream, west of Lincoln, in May 2004.
The strewn gravel in which the skeleton lay is the course of Mattamiscontis Stream when it overflows its banks during springtime snowmelt and flooding. When an ice jam breaks, the flow can be sudden and overwhelming to any animal in its path, and an animal that, one minute, thinks it is on high ground that may remain an island above the flow can find itself swept under water in a second. I think that is what happened with this fellow.
(all photos by David A. Woodbury)