Dating from my childhood and long before, the deep forests of Toombs County, where I grew up, have been home to creatures far more interesting than ‘coons and ‘possums, namely panthers and bears. Some wildlife “experts” deny the existence of these animals in this place, but both have been seen and heard by reliable witnesses among my family and others, most of them experienced hunters.
My first “encounter” with a panther came on a bright moonlit night in the spring of 1946. Exiting the car upon our return from a family visit, we heard a cry that at first sounded like an animal in distress. Judging the source to be a dog caught in the fence far away, I put on my 10-year-old’s courage and declared that I would go up the line and free the unfortunate canine. Just then the cry came again, this time closer. My father commanded, “Wait, son,” a wasted warning since I was frozen in my tracks. I remembered what I had heard as the description of a panther’s cry — probably a mating call — “like a woman’s scream.”
We lived in a heavily-forested region encompassing portions of six counties and parts of a dozen streams. Then and now it offers ample territory for wide-ranging panthers. My father discerned that the panther was traveling west to east on a path that would pass not far in front of the house. He jumped in the car and took off down a two-track road to intersect the path of the cat but was seconds too late. In the headlights, he did find a paw print and was impressed.
That was not Daddy’s only encounter with a big cat. A few years later, he and my brother, Jimmy, went to a pond to hunt ducks, but were brought up short by a warning “huff” from a panther that had planned to ambush a duck in the wooded shallows of the pond. According to Jimmy, Daddy shoved his way into the thick bushes in which the cat was holed up, declaring “I’ll blow a blue hole in him.” He was armed with a shotgun loaded with #6 bird shot!
A year or so later, one of his cows gave birth in a wooded area. It was a breach delivery and the calf died. He and Jimmy left to call the veterinarian for the cow and when they returned they scared away a panther that had begun to eat the dead calf.
There have been several sightings. Mother saw one on the edge of a rural road as she was driving home from work late one afternoon. It ran along the road ahead of her car for a few steps, then bounded into the woods. She described the animal as “tawny with a long tail. A little larger than a big dog but longer.” These are not the words of an overwrought female. She liked to fish in rivers and creeks, understood the woods and used Daddy’s 12-guage to deal with hawks that were after her “biddies.”
My late wife, Annette — another woman experienced with fields and streams — saw a panther in Bulloch County while driving on the Pulaski Road near Lott’s Creek. Her description was similar and she noted how easily it cleared a fence on the way to welcoming woods.
There have been many other encounters in the vicinity of the Toombs County farm and elsewhere. A family friend shot a deer across a field and a panther dashed to the fallen deer from heavy cover but darted away when the hunter fired again. From another deer stand, my brother witnessed the episode. He and other hunters have been spooked by a “huff” from a hidden cat. My nephew and a friend abandoned their plans and equipment for an overnight camping adventure at such a sound.
Jimmy has been an enthusiastic and successful deer hunter, but as he made his way from his golf cart to his favorite stand not long ago he heard a loud “huff” coming from somewhere close. As quickly as possible, he retreated to the golf cart and got on and went to the house. Beset by age, disabilities and a hostile panther, he retired from hunting.
There were bears in the same woods for many years. An uncle saw one cross the road just ahead of him about 400 yards from my family’s home. A couple of miles away, two young men cutting wood surprised a cub, which climbed a tree in full view after which they decided to cut wood elsewhere. A bit further down that stream, a neighbor’s bulldog jumped out of his pickup to take on a bear. It was a female with cubs and ready to fight. It was not hard to persuade the dog to get back into the truck.
My maternal grandfather, Rudy Williams from near Cobbtown, was a fox hunter. He had a pack of hounds and a brother had some more. He enjoyed the chase — not the kill — but his dogs usually obeyed instincts to kill. Foxes became scarce in his area, so he crossed the Ohoopee to hunt on Daddy’s land and thereabouts. Since there were bears in the area and hounds are non-discriminating chasers, occasionally the hounds chased the bears. Granddaddy knew immediately what had happened because a bear would run a while and stop and fight a while. It might climb a tree and the hounds would bark “treed” for a time before giving up. Or they might have just decided that they were not cut out for fighting and to return at the blowing of the hunter’s horn.
These bears were black, perhaps a smaller sub-species of the black bears seen in the mountains of the Southeast. Locals called them “hog bears.” They disappeared from that area in the 60s, no doubt because of extensive habitat challenges.
The bear population overall is rebounding. There is open season on bear hunting in North Georgia and a few other places. I hear occasional anecdotal accounts of sightings here and there in Southeast Georgia, but none from around the home place. On the other hand, human contact with the deep woods is limited. Since bears will eat almost anything and thrive, there might be bears on Reedy Creek again. Who knows?
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.