(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Mar 2015, No. 123)
Legend of the Water Panther
For several years, residents in rural Allen County have heard rumors of a big cat roaming the countryside. In fact, a News Sentinel article featured a front page story accompanied by a photograph. Even so, those who have encountered the big animal do not need convincing while others remain skeptical.
News Channel 15 was once presented with a video of what appeared to be a mysterious big cat in nearby Adams County. When the somewhat shaky video was shown to animal experts it was agreed that the image was that of a big cat and could be a cougar or a leopard. Wabash County Chronicle (2010) authors Ron Woodward and Gladys Harvey wrote, “People near Hanging Rock, up and down the (Wabash) river, claim to either hear or see a large cat. Others claim that their dogs act strangely at times as if intimidated by something.”
If such an animal came up missing from a zoo or a licensed dealer, the law requires that the registered animal must be reported. The question remains whether or not all private owners’ always report their missing pets. Real or perceived, what are the odds the big beast was some other breed and one that once prowled the Midwest countryside?
An Associated Press story in June 2012 recounted that cougars were spreading across the Midwest one hundred years after they had been reduced to near extinction. Experts interviewed say critters such as cougars are known to be secretive and mostly keep to riverbanks and wooded areas, usually avoiding humans while feeding on deer, turkeys and raccoons.
With these sightings it brings to mind myths held by the Miami people who populated the Three Rivers woodlands in centuries past. References to big cats extend back to the early inhabitants of the region such as Civil Chief Richardville’s Miami name pinsiwa translates “wild cat.” According to Mike Floyd author of l’Anguille Snakes in the Grass, Tecumseh was named for “Panther Passing By.” He speculated that Tecumseh’s name is derived from lore of the large wild cat known as Shipeshi “the sacred water panther. Or, historian Jacob Dunn wrote that the name Tecumseh belonged to the Spirit Panther totem which stood for a meteor or comet.
Miami descendant and Whitley County Historical Museum Director Dani Tippmann said, “There definitely were panthers around here.” The Miami tell of the “Water Panther” that lived near rivers and lakes. Children were warned not to get close to the water for fear the panther would drag them into the depths. The age-old question arises whether or not there is a kernel of truth in most myths. It is known that there are some large cats that prefer water and its surroundings.
Details of the monster Water Panther vary from community to community. Could those big cat accounts in the news possibly be a Jaguarundi? A picture of one appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie. Known to roam present-day American Southwest, this big panther is a good swimmer and prefers dense cover with some open areas. If cougars or leopards are being reported, why isn’t it possible that variations of the species are being noticed? With its cat-like body about the size of a Labrador retriever, the Jaguarundi has a long tail, short legs and some say has an otter-like or cat-like head. A female can deliver her young in several shades of color including black, tan, gray or chestnut. A Jaguarundi is considered a solitary animal that feeds on birds, rabbits and small rodents.
As we look for how such creatures could be spotted in our neighborhoods, shouldn’t the Miami tale of “water” or “spirit panther” be looked at more carefully? Could it be we might take a lesson from the lore of the Miami that it is this mysterious big cat which is returning to the Great Lakes country? We’ll have to wait until we catch one on video tape with a sharper focus.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.