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Texas: Here Be Panthers!
Fort Worth, Texas, where I live, is often called the Panther City. This nickname traces back to the Civil War. Army troops were called away to fight in the war, leaving settlers vulnerable to attack by Comanche and Kiowa who didn’t cotton to paleface invaders. As a result, many Fort Worth residents fled eastward. In their absence, panthers supposedly slept in the deserted streets. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure makes for a good yarn.
When I say panthers, I don’t mean the big black cats native to South American jungles. I mean cougars, also known as pumas, mountain lions or catamounts. In the old days they were often called panthers or painters, and they roamed all over Texas. Now, they’re found mainly in the mountainous deserts, including Big Ben National Park, and on the brushy Rio Grande Planes in the south and western parts of the state.
Cougars are solitary, shy animals, nocturnal hunters of deer, wild hogs, rabbits and other small prey. However, they do occasionally kill livestock, dogs, even horses. Tye Devlin, the hero of my novel, Dashing Druid, tangles with one of these cats while on a cattle drive to Kansas. You can read a short excerpt at the end of this article.
Another big cat formerly found in Texas is the jaguar, the third largest cat in the world. Called el tigre in Mexico, this beautiful spotted cat once roamed over the southern and eastern portions of Texas, but there have been no proven sightings since the turn of the 20th century. Shy and retiring, jaguars usually will not attack humans unless cornered, but they are said to go after cattle and horses if given the chance.
Smaller feline predators in Texas, past or present, include the ocelot, jaguarundi, margay and bobcat. Ocelots once ranged all over the dense brush thickets of south Texas and were occasionally seen in the north and central parts of the state. Now they’re found only in a few brushy patches on the Rio Grande Plains. Likewise the jaguarundi. Not much larger than a common domestic cat, these dark gray or reddish cats are very seldom seen. Margays are extinct in Texas. The only reported specimen was caught near Eagle Pass, on the Rio Grande, in the 1850s, but fossil evidence shows these small spotted cats once inhabited southern Texas. They now live only in tropical forests beyond our borders.
Bobcats are the most common wild felines in Texas. Short-tailed, rusty-brown or gray, with dark splotches and bars, they are as large as a medium-sized dog. Preferring rocky areas or brushy thickets for cover, bobcats have adapted to human intrusion in their habitat and still range all over the state. Like most cats, they are shy of humans and do their hunting mainly at night. They eat mostly ground squirrels, wood rats, mice and rabbits, but will sometimes prey upon domestic sheep, goats and poultry.
Okay, I’m cat obsessed, but I will briefly mention other Texas predators. First is the coyote. This doglike carnivore roves all over the state. Often called “prairie wolves,” coyotes did not always inhabit the forests of east Texas, but as the native red wolves were eradicated, coyotes moved in. Like wolves, they often form packs, but may live alone. They eat garbage, carrion, and prey on rabbits, rodents and some domestic poultry.
Although red wolves are now mostly gone, some interbred with coyotes, producing coyote-like offspring. Larger gray wolves once ranged over the western two-thirds of the state, but they have also been eradicated. The last two confirmed sightings were in 1970. Rounding out the canine family, three varieties of fox call Texas home. The tiny swift or “kit” fox lives in the open desert and grasslands to the west. The medium-size gray fox is found statewide but gravitates toward forested areas. The red fox, brought into the state in 1895 for sport hunting, live in east and central Texas, though they’re not very common.
Finally, is the black bear. These omnivores previously roamed all over Texas, but only a few now inhabit the mountainous Trans-Pecos area in the far west of the state. They feed upon vegetation, carrion and garbage around camp sites. Some may kill deer or livestock.
For further information try these sources:
The Mammals of Texas by William B. Davis and David J. Schmidly (online edition)
Endangered and Threatened Animals of Texas by Linda Campbell
Texas Wildlife Viewing Guide by Gary L. Graham
Okay, here’s a taste of Tye Devlin’s encounter with a cougar:
Delayed by the flooded Red River, the herd is being held, waiting for the river to go down before crossing into Indian Territory (Oklahoma.) Nearby flows a small stream called Panther Creek -- where panthers are said to lurk. Tye is riding night guard.
The panther had screamed a couple times earlier, but he’d sounded farther away. He was getting too close for comfort now. Along with the other night guards, Tye attempted to calm the cattle, not an easy task when he was on edge himself.
Glancing at the stars, he judged it nearly time to head for his bedroll. Three nights of double guard duty had left him dog tired, but the panther’s presence overrode his need for sleep.
He stiffened in his saddle when another blood-curdling cry rang out, sounding dangerously close. Dozens of cattle scrambled to their feet, almost ready to run.
“Stop your racket, ye devil,” Tye muttered. Figuring he was closer to the troublemaker than anyone else, he made a quick decision. Not giving himself time to reconsider, he swung the grulla toward where he thought the shriek had come from, certain the panther wouldn’t attack him. He’d seen the creatures down along the Nueces and back in Colorado. They must roam all over the West. Lions, some miners called them. Despite their fearsome cry, they usually ran off when a man approached.
He’d drawn near to a rocky outcrop when a long, shadowy shape detached itself from the rocks and took off running with a snarl. Startled for a second, Tye kneed his horse after the predator to make sure it kept going. Oddly, the cat appeared to limp, but it still outran them for a good ways. Then it stumbled to a halt, whirled around and shrieked.
The grulla stopped so short, Tye nearly catapulted over its head. Before he could regain his balance, the horse neighed in terror and reared. Losing his grip, Tye tumbled from the saddle and hit the ground hard, knocking the breath out of him. He lay there for a few seconds, fighting to breathe while the horse galloped off. Then he started to sit up . . . and froze.
Not ten feet away, he saw the dark form of the panther. Ears laid back, fangs bared and eyes glittering in the moonlight, the cat crouched, ready to spring. Tye grabbed for his gun, but stopped, remembering the nearby herd. A gunshot might start a stampede. Reaching for his knife instead, he barely had time to draw it from his boot before the panther was on him.
The snarling brute instantly went for his throat. Tye clamped his free hand around the beast’s own throat to hold it off. As he did, razor-sharp claws raked his shoulders. Hissing in pain, he attempted to plunge his knife into the cat’s heart, but oaken ribs deflected the blow. All he did was make the demon madder.
Growling, the panther tried to twist free of his hold on its neck. A hind foot clawed his right thigh; front talons flayed his chest. Crying out, Tye shifted his grip and desperately forced the animal’s head back.
Learn how this life and death battle ends in Dashing Druid.