Wampus Cats, panthers and cougars, oh my!
When I was a boy, my grandfather told me about the huge Wampus Cat he claimed to have seen one dark Guilford County night during Prohibition. Later, while writing a freshman paper on North Carolina’s “mystery animals,” I asked him about the Vampire Beast of Bladenboro that allegedly terrorized that small town 142 miles from Greensboro in the winter of 1953. He opined it was likely the same type of critter.
George Dewey Barnes liked to tell tall tales, yet 37 years after his death, I’m finding out that one of his tallest might be sort-of true.
When I was a kid, he and I spent many weekends at his brother Olan’s farm at the corner of Friendly and Holden, where Uncle Olan had fought roosters and brewed moonshine since coming home from the Great War. After Greensboro’s growth had put the property inside city limits, he stopped “chicken fighting” (because Baptists don’t like to say “cock”) and bootlegging, but was allowed to raise and sell poultry until he died in 1979. On Saturday nights, after Olan and Virginia Barnes had gone to bed early as farm folks do, Granddaddy and I would sit in the parlor watching wrestling, cheering on Johnny Weaver and George Becker against Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson. Next up was Shock Theater out of WGHP in High Point.
One early ‘70s summer night, host Dr. Paul Bearer (Dick Bennick Sr.) wished us “pleasant screams” as he introduced Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic The Leopard Man, which featured the most frightening sequence I’d seen in such an old movie, in which a teenaged Mexican girl is stalked and killed by a panther. “That almost happened to me,” Granddaddy said to me.
I asked him what he meant; he said, “I’ll tell you tomorrow. It’s no story for bedtime.”
The next day, as his brother twisted the heads off chickens and tossed the carcasses to us for scalding and plucking, Granddaddy told me this story.
It was a couple of years into Prohibition, meaning the century and the Barnes brothers were in their early 20s. Dewey and Olan were sweet on two “Yankee gals learning how to be ladies at Greensboro College,” which he said was still at that time, a finishing school for would-be Southern Belles. One Saturday night, the brothers crept up to the dorm with a painter’s ladder and snuck the women out to go joyriding in Granddaddy’s jalopy. The quartet ended up camping off Owls Roost Road near Summerfield, where they lit a fire and sampled Olan’s moonshine (which would later become known as the best this side of the mountains).
They had a coonhound named Eustace with them, and the dog took off into the dark after a rabbit. They drank more hooch and called for him to come back.
Which he did, fast and making a noise, like the Devil was right behind. Eustace leaped into the jalopy and tried to burrow under the rumble seat. Everyone laughed until they spotted what crouched at the rim of the firelight.
My grandfather said it was an enormous cat, black as night and big as a donkey, with eyes like coals and teeth the size of railroad spikes. Granddaddy’s gal hollered and climbed his shoulders, and he stumbled for the car with her scanties in his eyes and her fingers twisting his hair (this was one of the several things he’d say made him bald at an early age). They all got crammed into the car and peeled out of there, and Granddaddy said, even over the sound of the engine and gravel and Eustace baying, they could hear the “Devil Cat” screaming like but louder than the women.
Uncle Olan twisted the head off one last chicken and said that the story was bull hockey–only he didn’t say hockey. He also said Granddaddy had “wanted him some nookie,” but his date was wise to him and only sipped her hooch, letting Granddaddy gulp till he could barely stand. Olan suggested Granddaddy had seen the eyes of a bobcat in a tree and inebriated imagination did the rest. Annoyed, Granddaddy threw down his chicken and stomped inside the house.
Ten years later, I was in grad school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and my grandfather and his brother were in Green Hill Cemetery. My Great-Aunt Virginia sold or ate the last chickens and put the house at 3702 W. Friendly on the market but continued to live there until 1985, when it so, and she moved into the Quaker Friend’s Home. One day, having seen The Leopard Man again in Eddie Bowen’s horror movie class, I remembered Granddaddy’s story about the Wampus Cat. She didn’t but said that one night in her husband’s last years as a farmer, something ate a dozen hens, leaving only feathers, feet and a paw print big as a man’s hand.
The Wampus Cat is one of the several monstrous felines in Southern folklore. Depending on whether you hear the story down in the Pine Flats or up in the mountains, it’s both demonic and panther-like, or a beautiful Cherokee woman cursed to transform into a four-legged cougar. This article is also a shapeshifter, and will now transform from a tall tale to something more probable and recent. When I began researching Tarheel folklore about Wampus Cats and Phantom Panthers, I discovered an old acquaintance made the local news two years for what he said he saw one rainy night inside city limits.
On Nov. 30, 2015, just after 9 p.m. and within five miles of where my grandfather said he saw his Wampus Cat, Greensboro resident Matt Phillips was riding his bike on the Atlantic and Yadkin Greenway off Old Battleground when his lights picked up something ahead of him. He says it was a huge feline, “just massive,” with tan rather than black coloration, and a long thick tail. It was a mature cougar, with its size suggesting it was a huge male.
“People have asked if I’m sure it wasn’t a bobcat,” Phillips said. “I’ve seen bobcats. Bobcats are tiny compared to this guy. I had two 600-lumen lights on the front and a 750-lumen light on my helmet. There’s no question of what I saw. I had more light running on my bike at that time than a car has headlight output. When I saw it, it was right behind Southern Foods. I believe the smell of their weekly purging of their freezers is what attracted it.”
Phillips claims to have spoken with others who say they’ve seen it in that same area.
“One guy made the point that there’s a lot of lazy food sources out there, in the form of deer and other game that are protected in the area around Battleground Park,” Phillips said.
He said he was northbound on the Greenway near the intersection of Aubrey Home and Southern Foods when it happened.
“It was maybe 50 yards ahead of me, crossing the path from the Southern Foods side to the cemetery side,” Phillips said. “It was walking casually, body raised up, and it turned when it saw my headlights. Anyone who has a house cat knows that moment when you catch kitty doing something naughty, and the ears go back, and it slinks down. It slunk down when it saw me and immediately scooted off.”
He said stopping wasn’t an option because he was doing about 25 miles per hour and trying to process what was in front of him.
“There’s nowhere to turn off the path, just a fence on my right and woods on my left,” Phillips said. “As I came up to where it had just been, I looked to the right and there it was, crouching against the fence, waiting for me to pass and looking as scared as I felt. I saw it almost as close as you are right now. I hit the pedals. All I could think when I passed it was ‘is it behind me?’”
Phillips said there was no way he was going to stop and search for his phone as he darted home. He said all he could think about was this predator prowling the Greenway where some children live.
“I called 911, hands shaking, and the guy on the phone took it very seriously, but the police who came out said they couldn’t find anything,” Phillips said. “Which isn’t surprising, it’s not like the cat was going to stick around. I’ve read they can range 50 miles in a night.”
In the almost two years since Phillips said he’s had strangers contact him and say they’ve seen it.
“I’ve also talked to my mom, who lives out in Summerfield,” he said. “She says her neighbors have had livestock killed by it, and have found prints. Afterward, people have come to the shop I was working at, and stated that they know they’re there, they’ve seen them, they’ve heard them at night, they’ve found the prints.”
Phillips said he doesn’t know about their experiences, but he does know what he saw.
“The canned response from the State of North Carolina Wildlife Commission is that cougars are extinct in this state, but that’s garbage. In fact, Tennessee just finally acknowledged that they have them there, based on trail cam photos.”
Phillips was correct, Tennessee’s authorities have reported 10 confirmed cougar sightings since 2015, after none in the previous century. While Jason Allen of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission calls the chances of any wild cougars living in the Piedmont “slim to none,” Katie Cannon, education director of Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, is less dubious.
“Carolina Tiger has been contacted with infrared pictures and other photos of pug marks and possible cougars (photos are not always clear) in surrounding counties,” she said. “It is not impossible for there to be cougars in North Carolina, either wandering here from the west or individuals kept as pets who were released or escaped and continue to thrive in the wild.”
Phillips is not the only Greensboro resident I know who claims to have seen a feline predator bigger than a bobcat roaming freely. My friend Lynne Buchanan said the one she saw a decade ago wasn’t in the Piedmont, but she describes something more like my grandfather’s Wampus Cat than a cougar. Lynne says she was a passenger on a trip to the Outer Banks, and that she glimpsed something just off the stretch of Interstate 64 that crosses the Alligator River and runs through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. At first, she thought it was a bear or a huge dog, but she said,
“As I looked closer, I saw what it was, although my mind refused to believe it; there couldn’t possibly be a black panther roaming the coastal plains of North Carolina.”
I recently exchanged emails with a retired North Carolina fish and game official about the possibility not only of wild cougars in the Tarheel State but the black panthers some believe exist in isolated areas of the coastal Carolinas. My correspondent, who asked to remain anonymous, said he considers the black cats described by my grandfather and my friend highly unlikely.
“The cougar, the only North American wildcat bigger than a lynx, doesn’t have a melanistic color variant like leopards and jaguars do, and those two species don’t naturally occur in North America,” my correspondent said.
But he was much less skeptical about the tawny-colored cougar Phillips described. Furthermore, and this is the reason why he asked not to be identified, he offered this interpretation of why North Carolina wildlife officials might be reluctant to admit the possibility.
“If anyone official were to acknowledge the existence of wild North Carolina cougars, amateur cougar hunters would turn out in force, randomly blasting away at large house cats, bobcats, Labrador retrievers and each other,” my correspondent said. “I don’t blame state authorities for silence or denial.”