Cryptozoology gossip in Harlan County
Judith Victoria Hensley Plain Thoughts
What is cryptozoology? It’s a big word, but has a simple meaning. It is the study of “hidden animals” or animals that are believed to be extinct or have not yet been discovered. This would include things like the Loch Ness Monster or legendary Swamp Man.
In Harlan County, it would be related to animals like the black panther, yellow cougar or Big Foot. Sometimes this study involves looking for animals that are known to exist in other places, but have not been absolutely identified in the area where they have been claimed to exist.
Last weekend, I heard tales of someone having seen a Sasquatch (or Big Foot) in the Pathfork area. The first response some people might have is to laugh about this possibility. Having never seen one, I cannot say whether I believe there is one or more unidentified ape like creatures running around Harlan County or not. I do believe in the possibility of animals existing that have not yet been discovered, captured or identified.
It would seem with all the trail cameras people have in the woods, the hunters, hikers and off-road vehicles, that any such creatures would have been seen multiple times and reported to the proper authorities. Some argue if there are such living things, why isn’t there a photograph, found a body or skeleton of such creatures?
I have been told black panthers do not exist in Kentucky or in this entire mountainous region of the country from New England southward. Black panthers have been documented in Florida and as far north as Georgia, according to researchers. They deny any natural existence beyond. I disagree with this based on my own personal experience.
I have not seen a Sasquatch, but I have seen black panther with my own eyes. I have been in the woods and mountains of southeastern Kentucky enough to know what I have seen and what I’ve not seen. Just like the hundreds of other eye witnesses to the existence of black panther living in our area, once you’ve seen one yourself, no one will ever be able to convince you otherwise.
I was at a storytelling event at Pine Mountain Settlement School and the topic came up. We started asking people if they had ever seen a black panther. At one point, nine out of 10 people said they had. As we continued to ask, there were several who had not, but often knew stories from people they trusted who said they had. Out of about 20 people, well over half of them, confessed to being eye witnesses of the big black cat we call a panther. Some call it “painter,” and some call it “wompus.” Others call it a “cattywompus.”
There are Cherokee legends of such a cat who was half cat and half woman. They called this creature Ewah. Those who have seen and heard these cats know why. The scream of a panther is said to sound like a woman screaming, or even a woman being tortured. Most legends have their origin in something solid. I believe these Cherokee tales were about the black panther that roamed these mountains then and still do.
I say this knowing I will be ridiculed by “experts” in the field from high ranking government officials on down to local people who have never seen one of these cats for themselves. It has become somewhat of a joke when certain people see me to ask if I’ve seen any more panther, Big Foot, or the Loch Ness monster.
This is a subject I’ve considered of enough interest to collect stories for a book devoted to the subject. In my student’s class projects over the years, we have had several panther tales and even had a few Big Foot stories. I’m not sure how to go about collecting the stories because people don’t like to be made fun of, scoffed at or ridiculed. I often have people who want to tell me what they’ve seen in the woods, but they don’t want it told anywhere else, or don’t want their name attached.
What I’ve been told from officials is that until they have a carcass, hair samples or hide samples that would produce DNA, a skeleton, plaster cast of foot prints, photographs or video where such a creature could be documented in a local place and in comparison to something measurable in the background – they do not exist.
There are many reports emerging about large cougar like cats in these mountains that range from the color of yellow to amber, or brownish red. I have not seen one of these myself, but I have seen panther on at least six occasions. I may have seen a couple at other times, but wasn’t sure.
The first one I saw was with Elmer and Irene Boggs in McCreary County. We had been camping in their cabin on Parker’s Mountain. About half way back to their house, Irene realized she had forgotten her glasses at the cabin. We had been talking about panther and my former husband thought they were pulling his leg. At the old Post Office site at Monkey’s Eyebrow, a panther ran straight across the road in front of us. There was no doubt. We saw the big black cat from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail just a few feet in front of the jeep. That was in the mid-1970s.
I didn’t see another one until I moved to Harlan County. I was driving to work early in the morning from Martins Fork on my way to Wallins Elementary School. A panther crossed the road in my headlights in the curve just beyond Bethel Baptist Church. I started watching for the big black cat and saw it one other time walking beside the road in that area. I also saw one sitting on a cliff near the Martins Fork spillway. These were in the mid-1980s.
I had not seen another one until about three years ago while looking for elk on Begley Wildlife Management Area between Harlan and Bell counties. On two different occasions, with two different people in the car with me, we clearly saw a panther. There were a couple of other times people with me saw what they believed was the panther, but I didn’t see it.
I could go back to the exact spots where these sightings happened. If a person sees one for themselves, I doubt that they will ever forget the place or the experience. It is such an unexpected thing, such a shock when it happens, that even with a camera in my hand, I was unable to get a photograph on one occasion because it was gone before I could turn the camera on and get it focused.
I have never seen a Big Foot, but I have heard a half growl-half howl that scared the living daylights out of me and the people with me. It wasn’t like anything we had ever heard before or since. If you tell me you have seen one, or a black panther, I will not call you a liar or make fun of you.
There are things in these mountains that many of us know to be true, just waiting for the proof to satisfy the scientific community. I have often wished someone could prove they exist through a body, a photograph, video or DNA sample. On the other hand, I have often thought that these creatures and those of us who have seen them may be better off if no one believes us.
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