Each year, Georgia officials receive dozens of reported panther sightings that are routinely dismissed as cases of mistaken identity.
Last weekend, a deer hunter on public land near West Point Lake was so certain he saw a panther that he shot and killed it.
Now Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division is trying to unravel the mystery behind the origins of the 140-pound cat that measured 7 feet, 4 inches from nose to tail.
"We're thinking someone had it in captivity, without a permit, and it either escaped or was released," said Jennifer Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Resources Division.
The hunter who killed the male cat was in a tree stand on Army Corps of Engineers land in Troup County and became afraid when the cat approached him. He faces no charges for killing the panther, Barnes said.
The cat was examined at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Ga., on Monday, where experts found the panther to be healthy and well fed, with scuffed pads on all four feet. Such characteristics are consistent with a panther reared in captivity, not in the wild.
Wildlife Resources Division Region Supervisor Kevin Kramer said there are no known native populations of panthers in Georgia, and that all permitted captive panthers -- including those as far away as Elmore and Macon counties in Alabama -- have been accounted for.
The next step will include genetic testing to determine which subspecies the panther can be linked to, Barnes said. "We're also sending a tooth to be tested, and that will give us its age."
Each year, authorities in Georgia and South Carolina get scores of reported panther sightings that cannot be confirmed with any documentation, such as droppings, pawprints or a fresh kill.
Reports of large, black cats are even more perplexing. Panthers, which live in the West and still have a small, endangered population in Florida, are not known to have a black phase. Jaguars, however, do have a black phase, but those creatures are native to South America.
The most recent local sighting of a large black cat occurred Sept. 31, when a Grovetown woman reported a 100-pound cat near the John Deere plant off Horizon South Parkway. Authorities who searched the area were unable to find the cat or any evidence of its presence.
TROUT DROP: It took little more than a helicopter, a ground crew and a few hours of hard work Wednesday to replenish one of the best trout fisheries within an hour's drive of Augusta.
In fact, the put-and-take fishery on the Saluda River near Lexington, S.C., is probably the closest place to Augusta where anglers can catch rainbow and brown trout.
According to Mike Willis, of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, helicopter stocking allows better distribution of trout and prevents fish from congregating in one area.
Wednesday's airlift included 13,000 6- to 7-inch browns and 3,000 rainbows averaging 13 inches. The trout can survive there due to the cold water released from Lake Murray Dam.
DNR stocks about 60,000 a year in the Saluda in what it calls a "put, grow and take" fishery that relies on stocking to maintain populations and the cooperation of anglers for success.
If given time to grow, they can reach up to 16 inches, considered trophy size for this type of fishery. If trout are to reach this size, anglers must practice catch-and-release fishing,. For details on fishing for trout in the Saluda, visit www.dnr.sc.gov.
CHARGES FILED: Three Augusta-area men were charged with wildlife violations after a Nov. 2 manhunt in Screven County in which three freshly killed, antlered bucks were recovered.
Charged with hunting without permission and possession of illegally taken wildlife were: Jerry L. Harden, 38, of Roswell Drive, Martinez; and 44-year-old David K. Brown, of Belair Road, Belvedere, S.C., according to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Law Enforcement Section. Jimmy D. Holt, 33, of Waylon Drive, Martinez, was charged with hunting without permission and hunting without fluorescent orange.
The suspects are believed to have used a boat to travel up Brier Creek into Millhaven Plantation and a nearby property known as the Hilton Tract, where they were detected by landowners and hunters with permission to use the properties, said Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Corporal Shaymus McNeely. An abandoned boat was recovered and the suspects were later charged after a search that also involved the Screven County Sheriff's Office.
Three freshly killed deer with antlers sawed off and backstraps removed were found in a vehicle at a Screven County residence owned by one of the suspects, Corporal McNeely said.
The charges are misdemeanors and the case was assigned a court date of Dec. 9.
MISTLETOE FRIEND: A volunteer group formed to support Mistletoe State Park is the beneficiary of a generous donation from a well known Thomson wildlife artist.
Helen Burnley Hall donated four lithograph prints of her original work, Dustin' Up , which was featured on the second cover of Quail Unlimited in 1982, to the Friends of Mistletoe group.
The prints, featuring bobwhite quail, will be used to raise funds for the volunteer group, which helps find money, volunteers and materials to help maintain and improve the popular park. For details on the organization, call Jack Burke, (706) 361-0500.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.