Large carnivore specialist says ‘black panther’ is a case of mistaken identity

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This photograph was taken with a smartphone from about 75 yards on the Larry Stluka farm, by Stluka's neighbor. Stluka believes this is a male adult black panther. Though, Scott Walter, a large carnivore specialist with the DNR, said he firmly believes it's a house cat, for several reasons, but mainly because there has never been a documented wild melanistic black panther in the U.S. (Photos by Austin Mezera)

By Correne Martin

Local farmer Larry Stluka believes he’s seen a black panther on his property outside Prairie du Chien off Highway 27. The Courier Press was the first to report his experiences, as well as those of his family, in two recent articles. Many readers from around the community and on social media have weighed in with opinions—particularly after seeing two photos Stluka provided—about what animal might be preying on Stluka’s livestock.

On Tuesday, within 24 hours of the second Courier article being published, Scott Walter, a DNR large carnivore specialist from Viroqua, reviewed the photos of the animal and contacted the newspaper to share his professional opinion. 

“I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty, that animal is a house cat,” he stated. “Though there’s no real size or perspective in the photos, if you compare it to the hay bale in the foreground, it’s clearly a house cat.” Stluka said the photos were taken by his neighbor from a smartphone at 75 yards away.

Walter said cougars—the same cats otherwise known as panthers, mountain lions and pumas—have been confirmed in Wisconsin. However, he said, “there has never been a documented melanistic wild black [panther] in the U.S.”

“I don’t discount that he saw something or that some animal might be preying on his livestock,” Walter said, “but, even in this area, it’s not unusual to see cougars, bears or just coyotes taking calves or smaller livestock.”

The local DNR warden and biologist were contacted prior to the previous Courier articles, but connections were not made. Walter said, after he saw Stluka’s story and pictures on the newspaper’s website, and received calls from other media outlets as far away as Madison, he decided he should express his opinion, stifling any paranoia or fears associated with Stluka’s claims.

“I’m pretty convinced that if you stood out in the open area where this animal was pictured, it would only come up to your shins,” Walter said. “A cougar would stand about 30 inches tall at its shoulder.”

Walter also encouraged landowners who may see evidence of unusual wild animals or livestock deprivation to try to report it quickly. He said specialists can sometimes identify which type of carnivore has wounded or killed livestock based on fresh physical evidence. In these cases, he said to contact USDA Wildlife Services at (800) 433-0633.

In the Courier’s June 13 article about Stluka’s experiences, he said he saw a “black panther” for 15 to 20 seconds outside his home, from about 100 yards away, after it was “thrashing for about one and a half hours with one of my beef cows behind some trees.” He said it had glossy black fur and pointy ears. 

Stluka said something severely injured his cow’s throat, killed a litter of eight piglets and a 60-pound pig, tangled and terrorized several dogs, and several house cats have gone missing from his farm since last summer. He’s convinced these instances are all a result of the large cat’s presence. Stluka also said in the article that what he saw was not a coyote or a wolf, as he’s heard suggested.

In the Courier’s article Monday, Stluka and several of his family members reported believing there is also a female adult black panther and at least two kittens in the vicinity of his property. 

All along, Stluka has maintained his intent with sharing his story is to warn people and perhaps get some help in trying to better photograph one of the animals on his property.

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