ARE BLACK WILDCATS PROWLING EAST COUNTY?

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Photos (not local): Jaguarundi, black jaguar, and melanistic jaguar with spots visible

By Miriam Raftery

January 22, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--A rash of sightings of large black wildcats have been reported in East County, most recently in Spring Valley.  While thus far no one has captured photos of the animals, the growing number of sightings from seemingly credible sources—including an East County Magazine reporter, raises some intriguing questions.

  • Are these cats escaped exotic pets, or could one or more black jaguars, believed extinct in California,  or smaller jaguarundis have found their way back into our region?
  • Both jaguars and jaguarundis are critically endangered in the U.S.  If these rare cats are regaining a toehold in our region, is anything being done to protect them from being shot by ranchers, law enforcement, or wildlife officials who may be unaware of their protected status?

Most recently, on January 5, Southwestern College language and literature professor Dan Moody told ECM that his mother, Dee Moody saw a jet-black, large cat that weighted at least 60 pounds walk across an open field behind her Spring Valley house on January 4 -- in broad daylight.

“It was definitely a cat, long and sleek,” Dee Moody, a retired high school teacher, told ECM.  “My dog (a German Shepherd) weighs 70 pounds and it was at least as big as her…It was right in the middle of the field, sauntering across.” She described the large cat as “black and shiny” with a tail at least half as long as its body.”

Two months earlier, her neighbor, Manuel Domagsang, a retired U.S. Navy Chief, says he heard his five chickens making noise. He told ECM that he found “a big black cat is inside the coop.”  The cat killed one chicken that night and around 5 a.m. the next morning, he checked on the coop and found the black cat was inside and had killed his remaining four chickens.  The big cat leaped over a fence right in front of him, he said.

Dan Moody recalled, “Another strange thing that might be related is that on Christmas Day, a retired Southwestern College professor came across two dead coyotes at the end of her cul-de-sac on the eastern side of Dictionary Hill (in Spring Valley). Their throats had been slashed and they were still warm.”

Moody said a Sheriff’s  deputy came with a rifle after the chicken killings and speculated that the animal might be “an illegal juvenile pet black panther that has escaped from someone’s home.” (The term ‘black panther’ typically refers to a black leopard or black jaguar, since there is no such species as a a black panther. About 6 percent of jaguars are black, and jaguars are found in northern Mexico, Arizona and Texas.)   The deputy advised calling California Fish & Game and suggested the animal could be shot.  However the animal has not been found.

ECM reporter Ariele Brooke,  who is also a teacher, says she saw a large black cat that ran across a roadway in Deerhorn Valley in front of her vehicle a year or so ago.  Asked how large it was, she extended her arms full width.  “It looked like a black mountain lion and moved like a wild animal,” she said, adding that it had a long tail. 

While there have been anecdotal reports of black mountain lions, or pumas, around the U.S. there has never been a single case documented.  There have been several cases of black bobcats documented, including one killed and positively identified, however our local black cat sightings all had long tails, ruling out the black bobcat option here.

Back in February 2012, ECM reported that a librarian’s son in Jacumba had reportedly seen what he described as a “black panther” crossing Old Highway 80 in Jacumba – one of several recent sightings of the same or a similar animal, area residents of Jacumba and Boulevard told ECM.

Today, ECM asked Howard Cook, a member of the Jacumba Sponsor Group, about black cat sightings in his area.  “Oh yes,” he said, adding there have been regular sightings of not only a large black cat, but also several sightings in recent years of a standard gold-and-black spotted jaguar at the recently refilled Lake Jacumba, just a few hundred yards from the Mexican border fence – which has a gap just east of Jacumba. 

As for the black cat, he stated, “We think it’s a black jaguar from Mexico.”   Cook voiced concern that large energy projects threaten to drain local aquifers and dry up water sources for wildlife such as the large cats in the area.

Jaguars are larger, powerful animals, typically 100 to 250 pounds – bigger than a mountain lion when fully grown.   Black jaguars range from virtually all black to others with spots faintly visible.  

Another option is the jaguarundi, also found in Mexico but substantially smaller than a mountain lion, around three feet long. While most jaguarundis are tan or brown, some are melanistic or dark in hue, ranging from grey to black.  Unlike jaguars or mountain lions, which are nocturnal,  jaguarundis tend to hunt during daylight hours. Some have described these cats as having a weasel-like appearance  due to their narrow heads and small ears.

ECM isn’t the only news outlet to report black cat sightings in our region.

In December 2013, The UT San Diego reported that a couple near Miramar Reservoir claim to have seen a large grayish-black cat that they described as about 4 to 4 ½ feet long, heavier than a German shepherd. “It was walking and sniffing like a dog would sniff,”  said the witness, who saw the large cat on rocky dirt lot before it vanished into brush on a steep hill facing the reservoir.

In December 2011, the San Diego Reader reported that a  resident of Japatul Valley south of Alpine, Warren Stormthunder, claims he saw a jaguarundi.  “He had the characteristic raked stance, longer back legs, shorter front legs. He was 25 feet away in the tall grass of the meadow,” Stomrthunder told the Reader. 

A resident of Aguanga, near Warner Springs, posted on a blog site that in her rural area, she heard her dogs “going ballistic” in 2012 and went outside to see a startling sight on a rocky mountain outside.  “The cat was on a huge boulder I have directly in the back of my house,” she said, adding it was near a barn where she has a pot belly pig, a goat and horses stabled.  “It was about the length of a pit bull (body) black but glistening circles of grey. The head was small for the body but had a very long tail that dragged while the cat was creeping up the rocks. ..I got a good look at it and the ears were round…Living at the base of the Cahuilla mountain, many people have seen the same sort of cat.” 

Numerous black cat sightings have also been reported in Northern California over the past several decades. 

San Diego Sheriff’s Department officially responded to an ECM inquiry about policies for handling calls about large cats, black or otherwise.   

“Our policy is if we respond to any animal, especially wild animals, we will call Animal Control or Fish & Game to respond because they are experts and we will only engage the animal if there is an immediate threat to human life,” Captain Scott Ybarrondo with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department San Marcos Station told ECM.  

Fish & Game officials carry tranquilizer dart guns and can potentially relocate an animal in a problem area, though often there is not adequate staffing to respond to large animal sights.

But Sgt. Ybarrondo added that if an animal poses an “eminent life-threatening situation”  even an endangered status would not protect it.  Moreover an animal that destroys livestock—including chickens—can also be killed by authorities – though it’s illegal for an individual to kill a jaguar, jaguarundi or mountain lion in California.

In late December, a mountain lion sighted in urban Lemon Grove prompted a Sheriff press release urging the public to call and report additional sightings.  Asked how deputies would respond to such a call, a deputy at the Lemon Grove substation told ECM’s editor that the lion would “probably be shot.”

San Diego County has recently been the site of controversy after Voice of San Diego published a series on “San Diego’s Wildlife Killers,” exposing how a secretive federal agency, Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has 18,700 animals countywide ranging from skunks to mountain lions.  A Sacramento Bee investigation found the same agency killed illegally, indiscriminately and inhumanely, threatening entire ecosystems.

ECM contacted the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department, which routinely handles calls reporting not only mountain lions, but also bears.  (East County has recently had a handful of black bear sightings, too.)  Sergeant Anthony Padfield told ECM how the department handles calls of big cat or bear sightings.

“Our procedure would be to contact Fish & Game and have them to respond to the location. If our deputies are dispatched, we’re just there to protect the citizens.”  He said wild animals, even large predators, are generally left alone unless there is an eminent danger such as going into someone’s house.  ““Most of the time, with noise and cars, they will normally go back into the wooded areas or the mountains or hillsides. Would we just arrive on scene and shoot a bear or a mountain lion just because it’s roaming around?  No, we wouldn’t,” he confirmed.  

Rather than calling law enforcement or wildlife officials if you see a large cat – black or otherwise—consider taking alternative steps  to cohabitate peacefully with wildlife.

You can protect chickens from wildcats by securing wire mesh around the coop, having a sturdy roof and high fencing, for example.  Using guard dogs to protect cattle or sheep, such as a Great Pyrenees, can reduce predation by 93%.  Keep pets indoors and night and don’t allow small children to play outdoors unattended in rural areas where mountain lions, coyotes or other predators may be present. When walking or hiking in areas frequented by large cats, you can carry a whistle, hiking stick, or pepper spray for protection, though attacks by mountain lions and jaguars on humans are rare.  Smaller jaguarundis are not known to pose threats to humans.

East County Magazine is interested in hearing from other area residents who have seen a large black wildcat. We are especially seeking photos and videos to document the presence of these animals and help identify  what species of wild cats are prowling  around our backcountry. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Mesa Grande

My Grandma saw one out the kitchen window one day in 1985. She told everyone to look but it was too late. Of course us kids went up there to look for it but saw nothing. I saw one in 2011 on the North side of Mesa Grande, above Lake Henshaw. I was driving on our ranch in an open air Jeep, I came around a blind bend and it ran in front of me then along side me up a slope. I think my Dad pushed it towards me because I ran into him in about 100yrds driving towards me. He never saw it though.

Sightings

I was camping at Heise county park and saw a Mexican wolf less than 20 feet from our campfire. One night when working at the Otay water treatment plant I saw a big cat jump over a 6 foot fence, and have a photo of a coyote on my street in Lemon Grove.
These predators will feast on your pets and livestock, so build a covered bunker style enclosure for them. The dam keeper at Lower Otay had one for his cats.

Jaguar or Huge Black Siting

Yesterday afternoon, about 3:30 on Mussey Grade Road in Ramona, CA, we saw a huge, HUGE black cat cross the road and leap up onto a rock. We pulled up by the rock and stopped. It turned and looked down at us. It was light but a tiny bit shady so it could have been dark brown with spotss but it was bigger than a German Shepherd and had a LONG tail that hung down and almost appeared to drag on the ground. We tried to get a pix but a fast moving truck came by and by the time we turned back it was gone. This area is close to homes in the canyon. We reported it to the Sheriff Dept who in turned pointed us to Fish and Wildlife, where they took a preliminary report and told us that a Game Warden would be returning our call for further information. We were north of Mahogany Ranch Toad but after Dos Picos, traveling towards town from Fernbrook House on Mussey Grade.

Black Cat in Laguna Mountains

I spotted a black or VERY dark brown cat in the Laguna Mountains in December 2015. It was walking south on Kitchen Creek Rd off Sunrise Highway. It was clearly a cat, it had large paws and walked/jogged like cats do. It was the size of a full grown dog, like a german shephard but very long from tail to nose, and when it realilzed i was behind it, he darted off into the hillside. I've always been alert for mountain lions or bobcats, but did not expect to see such a dark colored cat in Laguna Recreation area.

jaguars vs mountain lions

My daughter, who works at the zoo, informs me that mountain lions are the only big cat to have back legs longer than its front legs.  So if anyone sees a large black cat, check out those legs! and get a picture -- since there's currently never been proof that black mountain lions exist.  Or if the hind legs are NOT larger, than this could be a black jaguar.

She said some jaguars are small, 95 pounds or so, though a very large male can be up to 350 pounds. 

They also have gold eyes, but the eyes are similar in color to a mountain lion. Leopards have green eyes, though leopards are not found in North America unless there is an exotic pet that got loose..

Jaguars have a larger, squarer head than a  mountain lion with powerful jaws.

Some of the smaller cats sighted could be cubs or immature big cats. 

A black jaguar may give birth to either black or spotted cubs, or both, since this is a recessive gene. 

Largest black cat sighting yet

Gene Garrity, who has lived in East County since 1991, tells us he and a friend saw what sounds like a large black jaguar in 1994 at the Loveland Reservoir south of Alpine.  Here's what he had to say: 

A friend and I had one cross in front of us on the road above Loveland reservoir  near the shooting range . We both thought black panther and we are both Pennslyvania farm boys . This occured in 1994 . The tail was very fat and very long . We got out of my jeep and were looking at the paw prints in the mud ..they were huge with huge claw marks . I estimate the cat was close to 200 pounds or more . I asked my friend a few moments ago  what his estimate was and he said 200 pounds or more as well . 

Similar Sightings in Anza

We have had several recent sightings of at least one large black cat in the Anza area, about 30 miles southeast of Temecula along Highway 371, and at least one person has taken pictures which they will hopefull pass along to ECM. Also, our dogs have definitely detected something unusual around our house numerous times in the past few months. They are quite used to coyotes passing through, and just go out and bark or howl when coyotes are around if they pay any attention at all, but when our mysterious visitor is around they go out and growl and bark at the fence in a totally different way. No sightings here, but the area around our house is quite grown up with redshank, etc.

More black wildcat sitings......

Susan Major-King of Pine Valley contacted us today:

"I have been feeding a feral cat in my gazebo and last night was surprised by a new visitor. He was about 2 feet from me when I saw him. He took a firm stand watching my next move. My first reaction was panther? No! But I sure froze in my tracks. Then backing my way to the door I reached for the knob as he dug his claws into the carpeting pulling it up off the cement. At that we both made a quick exit. Safe inside I felt silly that a "cat" scared me so bad until I opened this East County Magazine today and saw my visitor on the front page. I am sharing this because it is an endangered cat and also to notify my neighbors who have small animals. He had an unusually strong build with big round head and coal black thick fur. Click on the picture to see the second one...that's him."

  (Photo 2 is a black jaguar!)

 

I also had breakfast today wtih my friend, Sharon Courmousis, who formerly owned a campground and RV park  on a remote rocky property in Boulevard. I asked if she ever saw large black wildcats.  She did once,  while driving her golf cart around the property. She said it was smaller than a mountain lion but much bigger than a housecat, and had a long tail that was wide at the end. She also said a neighbor saw the black wildcats, too.

 

C'mon readers, doesn't someone have photos?

 

 

Black cat sitings in the past in Poway

After this story ran, a reader e-mailed us this note:

 

Back in the 1980s, there were several sightings of what was apparently a melanistic (i.e. black) cougar in the eastern end of Poway near highway 67.

Mary Shepardson

 

 

They don't stand a chance

If it is true that rare big cats are indeed here, the odds of them surviving is slim to none. There are so many trigger-happy police (etc.)  and civilians that they are doomed. Their natural food sources will continue to decline, forcing them closer to humans. It sickens me to see livestock valued higher than these creatures whose homes we inhabit. It's nothing new.

Further reporting of details on where they have been seen -- because it is sensational and "sells papers" -- helps to lessen their chances of survival.

A note on black wildcat coverage

Konabish - We have intentionally NOT disclosed the exact location of the most recent sightings, though we have that information. 

We are nonprofit and our news is free to the public.  We have no motive to "sell paapers."

Our hope is that media coverage could prove the existence of one or more endangered species thought to be extinct locally--evidence that could help lead to habitat preservation and protection. Arizona and Mexico, for example, have established jaguar preserves. 

 

Selling "paapers"

The term was used literally, referring to readership. The headline of prowling suggested something sinister. We agree to disagree. 

Konabish,

We use the tagline "The East County Eater is on the prowl" for our own restaurant reviewer.   An animal prowls in search of food - nothing negative about that that I can see.  You're reading ill motive into our story that simply don't exist.

This is exciting

I would love to see a comeback of any native species here.  But, I know that people seem to spot large, black, cats everywhere in the US and most of them turn out to be just housecats or something else.

I'm glad you mentioned protecting chickens because more people are keeping them in their yards nowadays and that sometimes attracts unwanted visitors.  I hear so many people say that there are no predators in their neighborhood.  They are living in a fantasy-land if they believe that because even raccoons, skunks, and possums will kill a chicken.  If you free-range and don't supervise your poultry, they will be eaten by something.  Please protect your birds with a solid coop with hardwire mesh (not chicken wire) and secure them when you are not at home or at night.

 

Black Jaguar

My neighbor at the Lavender Farm in Valley Center just down the street spotted one laying in the crook of a tree behind their property and took a photo of it. It was blurry, but you could definitely see it was a big black cat and not a house cat lying in the tree.