Debate over possible big cat sightings in Ga.

Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 3:58 PM EDT
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LIBERTY COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s a topic that gets people in our area talking: apparent big cat sightings, like panthers and mountain lions, in rural Georgia. A lot of people, from hunters to those just driving through, insist they’ve seen panthers or mountain lions in our area.

But DNR officials say, not so fast.

Instances of big cats being caught on camera in nearby states, including Florida, have gone viral in recent years. Some Georgia residents said they’ve seen the apex predators roaming rural areas of the Coastal Empire.

Liberty County resident J.R. Gill said he’s convinced a cougar killed two of his cats earlier this summer.

“Some critter came through a hole and got in there and killed both of the cats,” Gill said.

Gill and his wife live several acres of land in rural Midway. Earlier this summer, Gill woke up to find an animal had cut through a screen in his work trailer and killed two of his cats. To Gill, the damage left behind - from the claw marks to the sliced screen - pointed to one thing.

“I turned in the complaint as a cougar attack, and that got everyone a little excited,” he said.

Gill said the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set up cameras on his property that day. They later told him they thought a wild dog did it, not a cougar. Gill said while he appreciates the DNR’s quick response, residents like him are frustrated over what they call a dismissive attitude toward reported cougar sightings.

“They all deny that we have wild cats in this region, and I know we do. Because people have seen them.”

A wildlife biologist with the Georgia DNR said there are two kinds of big cats near our state: Florida Panthers and Tennessee Mountain Lions. They say last year, there were 65 reported big cat sightings statewide. None were confirmed. The biologist insisted there are no ‘big cats’ in the peach state.

The DNR put out a similar statement on Facebook last year, and it got a lot of backlash from residents. One person posted this article from 2008, where the DNR confirmed this Florida Panther was shot and killed in Troup County, near the Alabama border. The DNR’s web site even states in the last 25 years, there have been three credible mountain lion sightings in Georgia. The department later edited its Facebook post.

And listen to this: our team found, in 1993, Florida researchers released 19 Florida Panthers along the Florida-Georgia border as part of a reintroduction study. One of those panthers was captured later that year in Statesboro!

Lifelong Liberty County resident Clay Sikes said, he’s spotted mountain lions twice in the county.

“It was not anything like I had ever seen or ever heard of,” Sikes said.

Sikes runs the page My Georgia Coast. With more than 80,000 followers, ‘big cats’ are a hot topic. Sikes thinks their sightings are underreported to the DNR.

“The thought of reporting a cat sighting to DNR has never crossed my mind, and it probably doesn’t cross many other people’s minds.”

But local wildlife experts are skeptical. Bulloch County Humane Enforcement Director Joey Sanders said he’s seen almost everything in his 20-plus years on the job. But he’s never seen a big cat.

“In this area, I’ve never actually seen one myself. I’ve never even seen the track of one here,” Sanders said.

Sanders thinks people are confusing smaller animals, like bobcats or coyotes, for big cats.

“If someone does have a picture, I wish they’d come show us,” Sanders said.

People like Sikes say, until that day, “The debate rages on.”

To recap, while the DNR insists big cats are not native to Georgia, they say it is possible - but unlikely - you could see one here.

Florida Panthers are an endangered species. The Georgia man who killed one in 2008 was fined and given two years of probation. So, if you do see what you think is a ‘big cat,’ you are asked to leave it alone and contact the Georgia Department of Natural Resources immediately.

To report a sighting, call the Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division at 706-557-3333.