The existence of panthers in Georgia has been debated for decades and continues to be debated today. Do they exist here? Probably not. But before we dive into why that is, we first have to work through a few points that often cause confusion in this debate.
First, we need to clear up what exactly we are referring to when we say “panther.”
And second, we need to know what color cat are we talking about.
What is a panther?
Technically, the term refers to big cats in the Panthera genus, which includes tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards. However, those are not the big cats we are talking about in this case. None of those exist anywhere near Georgia, and only the jaguar could possibly be found in the United States. Even that is highly unlikely, though.
What most people are referring to when they talk about someone seeing a panther in Georgia, is the cougar, or mountain lion — Puma concolor. When most people think of mountain lions, they think of western states, but there is an established population of these big cats in South Florida, which are often referred to as Florida panthers.
Florida panthers once ranged from the southern tip of Florida north through Georgia and as far west as Louisiana and Arkansas. Overhunting in the 1800 and 1900s ultimately wiped them out across all but a small portion of their original range. Today the only place they are found is in the southwestern tip of Florida. Sadly, it’s estimated there are only 120 to 130 left in the wild.
Are They in Georgia?
As I mentioned above, there are no resident mountain lions or Florida panthers in Georgia. That’s not to say it’s out of the realm of possibility for someone to see one in Georgia, but it would be an extremely rare occurrence. Here’s what the Georgia DNR had to say about the possibility.
“In the last 25 years, there have been only three credible mountain lion sightings in Georgia. These animals were all related to the Florida panther. The most recent and well-known situation involved a hunter in LaGrange, GA (Troup County) in 2008 who shot and killed a mountain lion while deer hunting. The large cat was later genetically shown to be a federally endangered Florida panther. The hunter was charged with a federal wildlife violation and sentenced to a $2,000 fine, 2-years probation, and was prohibited from obtaining a hunting license anywhere in the United States during the probation.”Georgia DNR
So the take-home here is that it’s possible to see a Florida panther in Georgia, but extremely unlikely. If there were resident panthers living here, there would be credible evidence, such as a good trail camera photos, cell phone videos, or roadkill.
What About Black Panthers?
This one is easy to answer. No, there are no black panthers in Georgia.
We’ve established that it would be possible to see a Florida panther in Georgia, but there’s never been a documented black (melanistic) mountain lion or Florida panther. NEVER. The only two large cats in the world that exhibit melanism are African leopards and South American jaguars. Neither of those would be found anywhere near Georgia unless it was an escaped pet. And even in leopards and jaguars, the melanistic phase is very rare. Probably less than 5% of leopards or jaguars are black.
So What Did I See?
Most mountain lion sightings in Georgia are simply cases of mistaken identity. And ANY sighting of a black panther is mistaken identity. I can’t tell you how many trail cam photos I’ve seen posted of house cats or bobcats that someone was convinced was a panther. I even had to investigate a big cat sighting when I worked for the DNR. The tracks the guy showed me were actually multiple deer tracks, the tree scratching he was convinced was done by the panther was woodpecker damage, and the scat he collected was from a coyote. I have no idea what he actually saw, but I know it wasn’t a black panther.
In most cases, it’s likely either a house cat that appeared larger than it actually was, a bobcat, or in many cases a domestic dog.
There are ongoing efforts to study and restore the Florida Panther population in South Florida. If that’s successful, then who knows. I may live to see my first mountain lion here in Georgia. Stranger things have happened. But for now, the chance of seeing one of these big cats here in Georgia is slim to none. If you’re convinced they’re out there, all I can say, is keep your trail camera batteries fresh and your cell phone handy. We need better proof than a house cat photo.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about panthers in Georgia in the comments section below.