Evan Tipaldos knows the silhouette of a coyote as well as he knows a bear when he sees one. Bobcats, which are known to live in Southeast Coastal Georgia, don’t get as big as what he saw. Tipaldos doesn’t question it. He said he saw a panther, a black one.
“He was just standing in the middle of the road,” Tipaldos told The News on Monday. “I know it was a panther. He was about 10 to 15 feet from my truck.”
He told the social media universe about the sighting in a post on Facebook on Feb. 25, prompting 276 comments in response, many people saying they’ve seen panthers around Glynn County too. Other posters disputed the claim and gave the same response the Department of Natural Resources provided The News — panthers, which are also known as cougars, only live in the wild on the east coast in South Florida.
Tipaldos’ post on the Golden Isles Scanner Updates page said: “No joke guys!!! I just pulled off of pennick road and what walks out in front of my truck? A BLACK PANTHER!!! I saw it clear as day! At first I thought it was a dog at first glance but it sat there a couple feet from my truck and just strutted off slowly back into the woods off to the right. Crazy!!!”
“They supposedly don’t exist here, that’s what everybody says” he told The News over the phone. “But there are 40 or 50 other people saying they’ve seen one before too.”
Tipaldos wanted to get a photo, but by the time the shock wore off from seeing the creature in the headlights of his Chevrolet Colorado, it had sauntered off down a tree line and slipped into the backyard of a nearby house, he said.
“He was huge, as tall as the hood of my truck,” Tipaldos said. “He looked at me for probably 10 seconds, and I was just shocked.”
Wildlife biologists for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources would be shocked too. According to a representative for the Wildlife Resources Division, there is no evidence of any wild panther population in Georgia. The most recent confirmed sighting of a panther in Georgia was in 2008.
“This panther, later determined to be a male from the Florida population, was shot and killed in 2008 in Troup County,” said Melissa Cummings, communications and outreach specialist for the Wildlife Resources Division. “The hunter was charged with a federal wildlife violation.”
That charge stemmed from the panther’s place as one of the first animals to be added to the endangered species list under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Services says on its website that there are about 120-230 Florida Panthers living mostly in South Florida, south of the east-west line from Melbourne to Tampa. A few more have been spotted farther north in Central Florida. The closest confirmed sighting to Georgia in Florida is just north of Palm Coast, Fla., the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service says.
“Most sightings of ‘panthers’ in Georgia are made from a distance, at night, or in an instance where the animal was only momentarily seen, such as rapidly crossing the road, or otherwise obscured,” Cummings said. “Big cat sightings usually turn out to be simply a case of mistaken identity: bobcats, house cats, dogs, coyotes, bears, or even river otters.”
But just because the scientists haven’t collected the data and evidence to confirm sightings like Tipaldos’ in Georgia, Cummings said the biologists at the Wildlife Resources Division will explore all the evidence when a sighting is reported. It’s not impossible for a Florida panther to venture north into Georgia, the confirmed 2008 sighting is evidence of that, Cummings said. Although the only known population of cougars living on the east coast is the Florida panther population in South Florida, they used to have a range that stretched north into the Appalachian Mountains and west into Louisiana and Arkansas, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service says.
It is also not impossible for someone to have illegally obtained an exotic animal like a black panther, then learned that feeding it 14 pounds of meat every day wasn’t sustainable, so they let it go, Cummings said.
If Tipaldos’ sighting was indeed a black panther, that may be the more likely scenario. The Florida panther population is scientifically classified as puma concolor cougar, according to Britannica.com, which is different from the large cats of Africa and Asia like jaguars, classified as panthera onca, or leopards, panthera pardus. Puma concolor cats, the Florida panthers, cannot be black in appearance as panthera cats can be, according to Britannica. Big cats like leopards sometimes have a recessive gene that prompts larger amounts of the pigment melanin, meaning they still have spots, but they are obscured by the darker fur and skin from the excess pigment. Adult Florida panthers are cougars, so can’t be black according to their genetics because they do not have spots like jaguars or leopards.
Cummings said the DNR takes every reported sighting of a cougar, or in this case possibly a Florida panther or other big cat, seriously, and as biologists, the scientists who investigate the sightings are open to whatever possibilities the evidence points.
“If a Georgia citizen has a concern about any animal sighting, staff at Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division Game Management offices do take such reports seriously and can work with the citizen to determine if an on-site investigation needs to be made,” Cummings said. “If you are a citizen that believes you have seen one, get the evidence (photos, video or track sightings) and let us know about it.”