CATAMOUNTS, PANTHERS AND MOUNTAIN LIONS - Real Or Imagined?, The Calhoun Wilderness Holds Answer


Photo courtesy of Cooper's Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary

By Bob Weaver

Newcomers to the wilderness of West Virginia had great fear of mountain lions, more often called panthers or catamounts.

Native Americans called them "ghosts of the forest." Today, in Calhoun County their ghosts still lurk, or maybe they are still around.

Many Calhouners believe the big cats still pass through.

Certainly, we've had a huge number of photos of coyotes, bear and bobcats published on the Herald.

Over the years I have heard dozens of mountain lion spottings, while the official evaluation of the Department of Natural Resources says it is not likely.

We have a fascination for the cats, naming hills and hollers after them - Panther Creek, Panther Knob, Panther Run and Panther State Forest.

Early Calhoun resident Samuel Lawson (1850-1935) encountered a mountain lion in the deep woods of Bear Fork in the late 1800s, and wrote this account:

"I remember another time I was in danger too, and didn't know it. My wife and I were coming in with a deer we had skinned on Laurel of Bear Fork."

We heard a noise behind us, and thinking it was the mate of a deer I was carrying, I began bleating, hoping to coax it near home so I could kill it also. Near where John Lawson's new home is now being built, my wife who was behind, began screaming and begging for me to hurry faster."

"As I was doing my best, I let her scream. Suddenly we heard a terrific noise and looking around at what was suppose to be a deer, there was a panther."

"For some reason unknown to us, the panther lad leaped into a tree and was hanging about 15 feet above the ground. I wanted to try and kill it but my wife forced me to go on home. I took the dogs back and tried to track it down, but they would not follow the scent."

In more recent years, the once-cleared Calhoun landscape is rapidly returning to wilderness, creating a better-than-average habitat for wild creatures. The county is 90% forested.

Calhouners say they have spotted the animals leaping across the highway, feeding on a dead deer, crossing a pipeline right-of-way, and once a critter was seen coming from a barn.

A family reported spotting a creature on Nicut, saying they took photos, which they did not provide.

There are folk tales about mountain lions or panthers following people, dropping on people from tree limbs, covering a sleeping person with leaves, and screaming like a woman being murdered. The screaming story is always the best.

A late-at-night panther story told to me over and over again as a kid, had the cat following a walker who was headed home, the cat quietly walking up the other side of a fence row for miles.

"I was walking home from Pine Creek through the Ward and Gainer farms, and I began to hear the sound of some kind of animal rustling the leaves across the fence...When I would walk, it would walk....When I would stop, it would stop," they said. It sent chills up my spine"

Dale Cooper and his brother-in-law Robert Sturm spotted a large cat about four feet long with a long tail in the hollow behind Cooper's house on Hardman Fork.

"It was a big cat, no doubt about it," said Cooper. It was spotted three times in the summer and fall of 1998. Cooper said "We haven't seen the cat since."

The sighting was close to the remote Rattlesnake woods, which now fosters numerous black bear, wildcats and lots of coyotes.

I would never imagined reclining in bed in the Village of Hur to hear the squalls of a pack of coyotes down in the hollow behind the house, but now its happening year after year.

Sometime in the 1970s my dad, Gifford Weaver, saw a large-tailed cat slowly creep through the grass of our meadow, stalking two grazing deer. The cat pounced a doe, which by a split second managed to get away.

In 1956 I saw a large cat with a long trail as it jumped across the Joker Ridge Road, running from the Bee Creek Wlderness which had been consumed by a forest fire for 10 days. The only time I spotted one in the wild.

Anne Smith wrote that several years ago at 4:30 in the morning she was on her way to meet some friends in Grantsville to go on a trip "When I was just passing the Dairy Products dock on Pleasant Hill, a mountain lion crossed the road in front of me. I went on down the road talking to myself...Did I see what I thought I saw? I told several people about it and I really think they thought I was "nuts". But I know what I saw was real. Believe it or not!"

In Belmont County, Ohio, Sheriff Tom McCort encountered a large mountain lion, which he believed had once been kept as a family pet.

Some federal and state officials believe there are are a few big cats in our mountains, but they are skeptical about their origin.

Bounties were paid on cats through the late 1800s in Randolph County, to rid the countryside of the dangerous animals.

The late editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, Jim Comstock, spilled the beans on this mountain lion story:

The long-time and ancient editor of the Pocahontas Times, Cal Price, was a fervent believer in panthers in these here mountains. He wrote unconfirmed reports about the cats in his weekly newspaper, year after year, while the DNR said "no way."

Comstock and friends actually purchased a mountain lion, I think from Colorado, and had it shipped to Richwood. Comstock wanted to make Cal Price's day before he passed on, have the cat shot and hauled down to the editor's office.

The plan, as I recall, went astray, because no one had the nerve to kill the caged animal, although it was taken to the Richwood Fire Department and placed on exhibition as a mountain lion that had been trapped.

The whole deal was foiled by the experts from DNR, and maybe a reporter from the Charleston Gazette, who discovered the cat was an import.

And old Cal Price, well, he was still a believer.