ONE EASTERN PANTHER OF MY ACQUAINTANCE
An animal not officially recognized in Maine has given some excellent accounts of itself.

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This describes a close encounter with a panther near Lincoln, Maine. It occurred about five hours after dark, Friday 24 October 2003, about six miles outside the town of Lincoln, where I live. I say panther because Bruce Wright, former Director of the Northeastern Wildlife Station at the University of New Brunswick, has argued persuasively for that name, rather than mountain lion, cougar, puma, and so forth, especially in his book,
The Eastern Panther (1972), which I read many years ago and still own.

The village of Lincoln, population about 6,000, is situated six miles off Interstate 95 at the 45th parallel. An uninhabited wilderness the size of Rhode Island lies immediately to the east and a similarly uninhabited region the size of Belgium lies to the west-northwest. Interstate 95 and the Penobscot River run north-south, a few miles apart and roughly parallel, and serve to separate the two wilderness regions.

It is significant to note a few things about myself: I have a B.S. in wildlife management from the
University of Maine (1977), I am a Registered Maine Guide, I have lived and traveled in this general part of the state (from Old Town to Millinocket) since 1973, and I claim but one previous panther sighting, 29 years before this one. What’s more, I am not on any meds, I do not smoke anything funny, and on the night of this encounter I was not inebriated (or dozing and dreaming).

As for the previous sighting, a dark-coated panther crossed the unfinished Interstate before me in daylight in the spring of 1974, about two miles northwest of this Friday’s occurrence, but the earlier encounter would not have been convincing to anyone but myself. (In the 1974 encounter, a long, low, smooth-moving creature, the
color of a chocolate lab or darker, swiftly crossed the highway from east to west 300-400 yards in front of the car.) Since then I have seen nothing to suggest a panther until November 2002. While deer hunting about 15 miles east of Lincoln I came across and photographed some tracks in the snow that also could have belonged to nothing else but a panther, but I found no other evidence. (It goes without saying that a cat print will not include a claw mark, as a dog’s will. But, while a panther will weigh six times as much as a lynx, the tracks of a lynx can be slightly larger than those of a panther, and less distinct as well, chiefly due to the fur between the toes. A panther’s fore prints and hind prints are all roughly three inches long and three inches wide, smaller than most people would probably expect. If anything, a panther’s fore prints are a half inch wider, making the fore print larger than the hind print.)
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page27_2In support of my qualifications to identify the animal, during my last year of undergraduate study in the 1970s, I approached my advisory team at the University of Maine, who included Malcolm Coulter and Bucky Owen, about pursuing graduate work on the eastern panther. In spite of my 1974 sighting, they discouraged me, citing the lack of evidence for the species in Maine and the difficulty in collecting any evidence, all of which I understood and accepted. (DNA analysis of scat, one of the strongest verifications of a resident animal, was not yet in the researcher’s arsenal.) Henry Hilton was completing his graduate work on the eastern coyote at that time, and he too dismissed the idea, stating that he had never encountered a panther. To which I say, I have never encountered a pine marten, but should my lack of an encounter persuade someone else that they don't exist?

I am acquainted with two individuals who work locally, both of whom live in Carroll, Maine, (where I photographed the above tracks), who have both had close encounters with panthers near their homes. I also am well-acquainted with another local resident who had an October 2004 sighting similar to my October 2003 encounter and in nearly the same place, then the same person saw it again in October or November 2005 at which time the cat sat at the edge of the road and tolerated being stared at for a few moments. But this is not about anyone else’s sightings. Theirs merely help corroborate mine, I think.

For this current incident, it was about 10:00 p.m. I was the front seat passenger and my wife was driving - since it was her brand new car; I drive my good old pickup. She was also in conversation with a passenger in the back seat, directly behind me. We had just come south from Medway on Interstate 95 and had turned eastward, toward Lincoln, onto the Access Road (now called the River Road), a wooded two-lane blacktop with normal highway markings, at least two miles from any built-up area of any kind and five miles from the outskirts of town. There were no other vehicles anywhere nearby. There was no snow or rain and the pavement was dry. Exit 227 off the Interstate is in township T2-R8, but the Chester town line is a few yards east of the exit ramp. We were not up to normal speed yet, probably crossing the town line at about 30 mph, when the headlights picked up a long, low, tawny creature crossing the road ahead from left to right in one smooth motion.

It seemed to be neither walking nor running but gliding purposefully. I recall the motion of the legs and the immediate impression that they were muscular. When the headlights first picked it up, it was maybe 30 yards away. At first glimpse it was not yet in our lane, but was still crossing the left lane, and it turned to face the car as it continued to glide or slink across the road directly in front of us. When it turned toward us and was still on the pavement, the headlights picked up the close-set eyes glowing yellow, the near one illuminated more brightly than the other. It then turned away so the eyes weren’t visible but the body was.

From nose to rump it spanned more than half the width of the lane we were in, in fact its body seemed to stretch from the center stripe to the side stripe, which I realize was the impression, not the reality. The tail was not readily apparent, but, if it lay close to the rump, it may have been easy to miss. At the shoulders it was not as tall as a whitetail doe. It was as tall at the hips as it was at the shoulders. It took no more than two seconds from the moment I saw it for it to reach the right-hand edge of the pavement.

When initially I caught sight of the animal, I shouted "Look at that!" – or that’s what I was trying to say; it certainly did not come out intelligibly. My wife, who had been turned toward me but talking to our passenger in the back, obediently broke off conversation and let off the gas because I shouted, but she looked at me rather than at the road, suspecting that I was choking I suppose. As the car slowed, the animal, which proceeded to clear the edge of the pavement on the right, stopped and crouched in the tall weeds on the sloping road embankment and turned toward us again. The eyes once more glowed a brassy yellow, both equally brightly, as it faced our approaching car and remained crouched for about two seconds.

We closed within about 15 feet before it apparently turned its head away, but the side lights on the bumper, which illuminate back about as far as the front wheel well, kept it in view until it was nearly beside my door. At that point I lost sight of it, although I believed I saw movement deeper in the ditch for another second, then nothing more. Maybe five seconds passed during which it was visible, so I was barely able to utter anything coherent and assumed, incorrectly, that the others were watching what I was. Not sure what to do but apparently taking cues from the direction in which I was gazing out the window, when the car came abreast of the spot where the animal had left the road, my wife let the car pick up speed and we went on our way. (I had my hand on the door handle and was near to flinging it open and jumping out!) My wife could say only that she saw eyes and a long body, and by the time we arrived home a few minutes later she could still verify nothing more than that. The passenger, directly behind me, saw none of it.

To the left, a little beyond where the animal had emerged from the cover of the woods just before I saw it, is a dirt road, which was, at that time, frequented by local residents but which has was gated a couple of years later. That road winds through the woods for two miles or so to a single-track railroad crossing. To the left and right of the Access Road are several square miles of bogs, brooks, low ridges, the railroad line, a cleared electrical pole line, traces of tote roads, and a few miles of dirt roads. It encompasses a lot of varied habitat and a lot of edge. The area has a sizeable population of deer, moose, beaver, and other species of interest to a resident predator.

That pretty much describes that Friday’s encounter. It also happened to be my birthday and the sighting was a terrific birthday bonus.

I realize that a whitetail doe or a young deer stands little more than the height of a car hood, and I have encountered literally dozens of whitetail deer along the road every year in this area. Friday’s animal was considerably lower and longer than a deer, and its eyes were forward-facing and too closely set for an ungulate. We are also accustomed to encountering moose on the road a few times a year, sometimes at night, and could not confuse this even with a young moose. A black bear is never tawny, and does not glide smoothly while running but almost "rolls" like an out-of-round truck tire or a cartoon caricature. Coyotes are plentiful here but will trot or lope along in the open with casual indifference to automobiles, much like a fox. Coyotes don’t move with cat-like smoothness, nor does a coyote span half the width of a highway lane. I have watched coyotes in numerous encounters. I have seen otters in and out of the water in the wild and I once mounted a fisher pelt. This animal was neither otter or fisher (or marten). The creature was so unlike a raccoon or porcupine as to not even warrant discussion. It was simply an enormous cat. A man-sized cat, and even more than that, for a man's body stretched across the roadway would not have spanned the distance from neck to rump that this creature spanned.

While my degree is in wildlife and would have qualified me for work as a game warden or wildlife biologist, I have spent 23 years in management at
Great Northern Paper Company and have spent thousands of hours traveling the woods in Maine north of the 45th parallel. (Since 2000 I’ve been an administrative person at Lincoln’s small hospital.) I roam the woods on foot whenever I can in all seasons. (I don’t own a four-wheeler or a snowmobile.) I pay attention to the evidence of every kind of creature. I have traveled the entire Golden Road system numerous times, and I spend summer weekends at a camp in T1-R9 (Ambajejus Lake). I hunt deer, upland birds, and ducks. I tote a canoe all spring and summer and pretend to fish. I always carry a camera. I recognize many animals and birds by their fleeting movements or giveaway markings – a pileated woodpecker’s flight, a moose’s amble, a coyote’s trot, a flicker’s rump. I know the tail on a panther is key to identification. I don’t claim to have discerned one on the animal I saw October 24, however if it was held closely and low, it may have contributed to the impression of body length instead. I have to argue that I did my best to observe and record accurately what I saw during that encounter. But I did so with the near shock of realizing right away that I was seeing the thing that I had most wanted to see in the wild as long as I have lived here. And a panther is precisely what I saw.

By the way, here's a photo of a fisher. I recovered this one as a fresh road kill and had it mounted. Its body is about as long as my forearm. This is one animal that some officials suggest you have mistaken for a panther.

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To substantiate evidence of a population, state-paid biologists and academic researchers want photos from identifiable places, or scat, fur, near-perfect tracks, bones or a whole carcass, or (best of all) a road kill. And even a single piece of evidence such as this only suggests that a pet panther was released and finally found. Some say, “If there is a population of panthers here, sooner or later someone will discover a carcass of one that has died, or its bones.” Well, I have rarely found a carcass or whole skeleton of anything that died in the woods. I have picked up moose and deer antlers (sheds), miscellaneous individual bones with no skeleton nearby, and only twice have I found a whole skeleton -- one of a moose, and the other of a bobcat, shown below. You would think that the skull of a bear, moose, or deer would be a pretty common find. Well, it’s not. This is from a lifetime of tromping the woods. So, having never tripped over a deer skeleton or a bear skull, either of which ought to be really easy to find, I am not at all surprised that I have never stumbled onto a lion skull in the woods of Maine.

I did have a quart-size Zip-lock bag with me when I found this skeleton. I gathered the entire thing and, even though it was stretched out over nearly three feet of ground, it fit inside that bag. This was near Mattimiscontis Stream, west of Lincoln in May 2004.

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25-26 October 2003, amended with later information about others' encounters
(photos by David A. Woodbury)
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