Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Panther of Colma Creek

So often our lives are safe and managed. Any "mysteries" usually always revolve around people and what we cannot see within our concrete jungles. Occasionally, within these usually safe and managed landscapes of urban sprawl, we see hillsides or open land with just enough trees or brush to allow for some intrigue revolving around non-human intelligence.

Even our daily urban interactions with animals are so safe and managed. Much more often than not, we've made these animals just as soft as we are. Whether as pets, livestock, or animals with a job function; our interactions with them hardly would be anything of a "mystery." If someone lived more of a rural life, or on the edge of a wilderness area, then they may have a different experience.

Some years ago, in one of the Carolinas, rural people started to report a "monster" who was picking off dogs one by one. It was described as some type of large unknown animal. Eventually this animal was caught on a motion-triggered camera as I recall. It was a "Florida panther" who probably had migrated north. East of the Mississippi, mountain lions only exist in Florida, at least as far as any type of viable breeding population. It was interesting that one mountain lion could cause such a stir.

A few years ago in the hills of southern San Mateo County, California--where the elevated neighborhoods meet a sizable wilderness area, and mountain lion sightings are fairly common--a woman hiker had an encounter with one of the lions. I recall that she saw mountain lion kittens, and sure enough the mother came after her. The lioness quickly ran along her as she was running away. In a moment, the woman noticed that the lioness was gone. She had just wanted to scare her out of the vicinity.

These wilderness areas provide plenty of "mysteries" in our lives, partly because we are not in control there. That theme is common when people describe simple encounters with wild animals, even small ones. Not only are we often not in control, but we can find ourselves at the mercy of wild animals. These animals have no concept of "justice" or "injustice." They live by evolutionary-struggle only. Urban dwellers are amazed when they suddenly find themselves "not in control."

When we see a rugged wilderness, especially wooden mountains, there's a "mystery," because we don't really know what's in there. Even on a warm sunny day, we can make out the ominous darkness just under the tree cover. However, it doesn't have to be a "wilderness." A small hillside, with some cover, engulfed by urban sprawl can provide a touch of mystery.

Just two weeks from an encounter with two very wolf-looking coyotes, I had another experience of a different sort. I saw the coyotes while hiking along the foothills in the broad daylight of a late afternoon. The later experience wasn't as potentially dangerous, but it was maybe more mysterious. It took place close to where I saw the coyotes, but in an area of trees and heavy brush. A transitional location heading into heavy woods, and it was during twilight. 

Early last summer, I began to notice what I considered an unknown animal while on twilight hikes in the foothills. I thought that it could be a fox, but it was black. It did have long ears, and appeared even larger than a fox. For months I wasn't able to get a good look at it. Finally, in early fall, I saw it. It came crashing across a hillside trail in front of me. It was a cat, but not a bobcat. It was one of the largest cats I have ever seen; long, lean, and muscular, with big feline shoulders. It was black with some white on its underside, long-hair, and had unusually long ears.

While it didn't have the long legs of a bobcat, it was big. Its black color made me think of the mystery black panthers in England. I would guess that it was about twenty pounds, and possibly a little more considering its length. It looked more like a "little panther" than a bobcat or lynx. Obviously it didn't strike a degree of fear as with the coyotes, but it got my attention.

I was hiking in an area which was a little bit more remote than where I usually hike. With the trees and heavy brush and foliage at that time of evening, it was beautifully gloomy. It was mostly a mixture of black and shades of grey, with the natural colors of browns and greens only faintly showing. As I started to reach a wider clearing along the trail, I noticed something big and black in the middle of it, about forty yards away. At about thirty yards, I knew it was an animal.

It was sideways from my perspective, and was in a crouching position, with its head turned towards me. I then remembered the big back cat from about five months ago. Could this be him? What else could it be? Within twenty yards, I saw that it was him... staring at me in the darkness. I couldn't see his eyes, and didn't want to purposely shine my flashlight into his face. If it was totally dark, then I would have shined it because I wouldn't have known what it was. What was he thinking? They weren't human thoughts, or even the thoughts of a house cat. I would guess that they were the intelligent thoughts of a predator acknowledging that "discretion was the better part of valor" just prior to retreating... like an African lion stepping out of an elephants way.

To the left of him from my perspective was a forty-plus foot tree with a massive stem with the thick branches sprouting out low; and with very heavy brush to the left of it outside the trail and clearing. He slowly stood up and started walking into the brush and foliage, as if he didn't want to be pushed. As though the option of waiting until the last moment and then darting off would be too much of a blow to the ego of this sizable predator. He then disappeared into the shadows, as though he were only a spirit-animal..... a myth.

As I passed the clearing and started making my way down towards a main trail that would take me back to civilization, I thought about what would have happened if I had somehow shrunk down to about eighteen inches tall--or even two feet--as I approached him? After I got home, and it was completely dark outside, I then thought about him just briefly. That he was still up there, hunting in the dark woods, with his night vision. A spirit panther.


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