Originally created 06/18/97

Panthers strike blow for realism



INMAN, S.C. -- Last year, you heard the growl. This season at Carolina Panthers' games, you'll see the whole cat.

Kyle Ritchie, scoreboard coordinator for the Panthers, wanted cleaner, more ferocious visuals for the team's 32-by-23 foot video screen at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. So he and a crew spent Tuesday at a wild animal park roaming with two massive black panthers.

"Most of our fans don't get to see a panther," said Ritchie, who spliced footage of live dolphins to splash up the scoreboard at Miami's Pro Player Park two years ago. "This puts a face with the actual mascot."

Ritchie asked when he arrived where he could get black panthers in the Greater Charlotte area. Turns out, the team had long used animals from the Hollywild Animal Park here.

The Panther roar that follows key plays does not come from one of the animals here, but they have played a key role for the team since its beginnings.

Caesar, a 7-year-old panther, was the team's mascot for parades and gatherings when the team first went on the prowl in 1994. His offspring, J.R. and Shalamar, followed in his paw prints for the latest video shoot.

J.R., a 150-pound package of power and speed, took to the sport right away. With a little encouragement - and a specialized rigging - from trainer David Meeks, the cat pounced on a loose footballs like Panthers linebacker Sam Mills would.

The big cat wrapped his massive paws around it and gathered it in just as Mills does. But Mills gives the ball back to a referee; J.R. punctured it with his inch-and-a-half fangs.

Shalamar, the sleeker, 100-pound female, showed a vertical leap of at least six feet and the ability to catch the ball on her back like Rocket Ismail.

Ritchie drooled over that action, but much of the time in the acre pen was not as exciting.

Meeks, who returned last month from Equatorial Guinea working with gorillas, said he spent the past few weeks releasing the cats into the larger-than-normal space and rolling footballs at them for reactions.

The park has long been the place where filmmakers and advertising companies called for exotic trained animals. Movies like the "Prince of Tides" and "Days of Thunder" worked at the 100-acre park.

The Panthers also will go after pictures of the big cats leaping at each other like teammates celebrating a good play and add in a few still shots with footballs, helmets and Carolina uniforms.

Ritchie hopes to cut about 10 to 15 shots into the Panthers' typical gameday showcase. He says the striking sight of the cats, combined with what he figures will be another winning season, should pump up the fans when they watch the busy video screen.

"Plus this is a lot cheaper than animation," he said. Cartoon footage can run a team from $500 to $1,000 a second, Ritchie said.

Even the Panthers' cartoon mascot, Sir Purr, showed up, but without his costume. "I wanted to see what I could learn," said Tommy Donovan, the man beneath the large black head. "There's no way to match the real thing, though."