Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America
Michael Mayes
Anomalist Books, 2018.
Paperback, color illustrations, 221pp

Right now was a GREAT time to release a book about the subject “black panther”. I’m being sarcastic because if you Google the term, you get nothing but returns on the comic character and movie*. The “black panther” that author Michael Mayes (TexasCryptidHunter) writes about is the generic term for a big cat (specifically a leopard or jaguar) with black coloration. The color is caused by melanism, which is a recessive allele in leopards and dominant in jaguars. Overall black color has never been found to occur in lions, tigers or pumas (cougar/mountain lion). Since leopards are not native to North America and jaguars are in Central and South America (with a rare few wandering as far north as the southernmost areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), large black cats would be considered “cryptids” because it is doubtful they exist. Science be damned, people report seeing large black cats all over the US (and also the UK, and in 2012-3 the French Riviera.) There is an array of reasonable explanations for these sightings but, as with any cryptid, people who have such experiences eventually settle on their own interpretation and many are convinced they have seen a dangerous predator in the form of a black panther.

Mayes deserved congratulations for this bringing this book to print. First, there is no comprehensive volume on this topic so it deserved to be tackled. Second, as an amateur, such projects are a heavy burden to carry to fruition and to be worthy of reading. He makes it clear that this was a frustrating journey. Explaining this does not add to the value of the book but I appreciate the effort that went into it.

The first chapter about “semantics” is important to set the frame for examination of the topic. “Black panther” is a colloquialism, not a distinct animal. The author clarifies that this volume is focused on the southern states, mainly Texas, where he has obtained detailed sighting reports. The subtitle, then, is misleading, since there is scant info provided for the rest of the country. But the black cats do appear to be reported more frequently in the southern US. Mayes remarks that many witnesses are surprised to discover that wildlife officials do not legitimize “black panther” reports and, thus, they are frequently dismissed out of hand.

The chapter on historical accounts and folklore is short. I’d have preferred it to be more robust but I understand that present accounts are the thrust of the book. It did get me thinking about why black panthers are so often used as school emblems (including my own local high school in PA). I suppose it is because they look so badass and awesome.

Contemporary evidence in the form of witness accounts, ecological viability, photographs, and a hair sample is provided in chapters 3, 4, 12, and 13 with an examination of candidates and the prevalence of melanism in between. The book would have been more effective if the text proceeded first to describe all the evidence and then moved on to explanations.

In consideration of the body of evidence, it’s weak. There is no physical evidence, no tracks or scat are mentioned. That highlights one inherent problem with the cryptozoological approach – one must determine the presence of any big cat; the anomalous black coloration is an additional problem. Mayes has a hair sample from a reported car collision but can’t get any experts willing to examine it. This is a shame. I do hope someone will step up and take a look. The photographs included are in color but too small and not in high resolution to be able to discern much. Several of them could be interpreted as large domestic cats and others could be dogs, which the author concedes. They are not too impressive considering what the observers say they saw.

This sighting from Louisiana was later tested with a puma-sized model and judged to be a domestic cat. https://doubtfulnews.com/2013/07/big-black-cat-caught-on-film-in-louisiana/

The eyewitness accounts are the weakest. I do not find them compelling. Often, they are remembered from when the claimant was rather young. Discussion about mistaken observations are difficult to broach in such reports but we must question the veracity of accounts where no good supporting evidence exists and when there are countless incidents where we know people have been incredibly off the mark regarding size, distance, and identification. Mayes receives accounts regularly via his website. He correlates the most sightings with areas of highest rainfall in eastern Texas, concluding that there is a biological entity behind the sightings. This does not follow as there are other factors, such as population of people and other animals (cats and dogs), that could account for this correlation.

The core content of the book is an analysis of the potential explanations for large cat sightings in this region. Hoaxing and faking is a given in cryptozoology, which is stated. Mayes judges that the witness accounts presented in this book are encounters with actual animals. The options considered are a melanistic jaguar, cougar, or jaguarundi, giant feral cats, and escaped exotic, all of which are at least remotely plausible. Thankfully, there is NO hint of supernatural speculation in this book. While it’s not clear any of these animals are present in the reported sighting areas, the possibility of any does not require a far stretch. These options are supported with adequate examples and expert commentary.

The chapter on melanism describes the chance of an offspring exhibiting the trait. I don’t know if readers will appreciate the Bio 101 lesson but it was written clearly and is a strong chapter. I did get hung up on the black cougar/puma possibility. To propose this as an explanation is entirely speculative as there is no verified account of a black puma. The option, however, is endorsed by one interviewee, Jim Broaddus, who runs a large cat facility and claims to have seen one. He “knows” he saw a puma. I would need additional information before concluding that anyone can tell the difference between a black jaguar, leopard or puma from just a fleeting view. Pumas are widespread in range, regularly observed, frequently tracked and studied, and bred in captivity. None have ever been black. The claims that black ones actually exist and can account for black panther sightings are unsubstantial.

Mayes concludes that witnesses can be seeing several animals that are interpreted as shadow cats – “most likely explanation for black panther sightings is, and always will be, misidentification”. That a local population of melanistic jaguars has repopulated the area is a tantalizing idea, but possibly there are large feral cats. Most likely, though, people misinterpret sightings of dogs and domestic cats. I do hope the black hair sample can be utilized to help clarify at least one mysterious encounter.

The book could be improved by avoiding the insertion of judgments or opinions – a focus on facts and evidence is enough. Also, I’d suggest cleaning up some organizational problems of flow and repetition of ideas and phrases, tightening up the language with a more heavy editing hand, combining the author’s note and preface with the introduction. These kinds of characteristics are really common and most readers won’t be bothered by them. I was not impressed with the unfortunate foreword that mischaracterized cryptozoology as a sub-discipline of zoology and was not in line with the rest of the book which is more suitably takes an investigative tone. It did not take a “scientifical” angle but instead adopted a logical progression that was natural and comprehensible – exactly the approach that should be used to communicate to a lay audience. The effort to provide references is far better than most amateur cryptid writers but still not great – fewer websites and more solid sources would be appropriate. Some facts needed a referenced source to be credible but lacked one.

Overall, this is a good effort by an enthusiastic amateur researcher who knows his topic well. This volume usefully fills a niche in modern cryptozoological literature.

*Use ‘black panther big cat’ instead.

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