Panther on the prowl in Huntersville?
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – Richard Bearhalter is an avid hunter and outdoorsman who knows his animals. But last week, he saw something in his neighborhood that he’s never seen in the woods and would be more likely to spot at the zoo.
While walking his dogs July 20 along Hillcrest Drive, Bearhalter believes he saw a panther or black cougar skulking around his neighborhood.
“It came out from behind a tree on someone’s property about 50 yards ahead of me and walked out under a streetlight,” he said. “I made a noise to try to scare it away, but it just turned and stared back at me for 5 or 6 seconds before slowly turning back and walking away … I got a really good look at it, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
It was big.
“Bigger than any cat I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I know sometimes people mistake these things for a black lab or something, but this had the body of a cat and weighed more than 100 pounds most likely.”
It moved with precision and intent.
And his two dogs, which rarely pay attention to nearby dogs or cats, reacted very strangely to the creature.
“My Boston terrier (Roxy) wanted to get away. She wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “Pepper (a lab mix) picked up the scent as we got closer to where we saw the animal and nearly picked me up off my feet pulling to get after it. They never act like that.”
He continued on his walk and noticed the animal again a few minutes later, this time further down the road until it vanished into the darkness.
What’s a man to do after running into a potential panther only blocks from his home? Bearhalter decided to eat crow.
Two years ago, his wife and sister in-law had spotted what they believed was a panther not far from the couple’s home. He called them crazy.
“I just called my wife and said ‘OK, you’re not crazy,’ ” he said with a laugh.
A number of other alleged panther or cougar sightings have been reported in recent years. Several people claimed to have seen a panther in the Rosedale area in 2007 and again in 2008.
John Shaw, a district biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, is a little skeptical. There isn’t a large population of panthers in Africa and Asia, where they’re indigenous, he said. He also doesn’t believe a panther would be able to survive long in a densely populated area like Huntersville.
“Usually when I’m able to investigate the claims, what we find is that it’s a large house cat or black coyote that people are mistakenly calling a panther,” Shaw said.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, he added. “People will sometimes get exotic animals to keep as pets, so there’s really no telling without an investigation.
But the long odds haven’t stopped the calls. Shaw said he fields about two calls a month from someone who believes they’ve seen the elusive neighborhood carnivore.
Bearhalter knows what he saw.
“I am 56 years old, an avid hunter and do not drink or use drugs,” he said in an email to the Herald. “It was not a coyote or wolf or dog.”