There are no cougars in Wayne County, W.Va. By official accounts, there are no cougars anywhere in wild, wonderful West Virginia. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2011 that the eastern cougar is no longer endangered because it is extinct.
But for a few days last month, a Prichard, W.Va., man named J.R. Hundley deceived a whole bunch of gullible people on Facebook into thinking he had seen one near his house. “I think he killed my [pit bull]! Something tore him up pretty bad,” Hundley wrote Dec. 16.
When asked by Facebook readers, Hundley divulged phony details about the picture’s origins. He implied that he took the photo on “my driveway up the hill to my house” on Lower Gragston Creek Road. When one reader voiced concern about a free-roaming mountain lion killing pets and livestock, Hundley even offered this reassurance about the one he never actually saw: “I was gone, came home and found him. He wasn’t mean at all!”
Nearly 1,600 people shared his warning about a puma on the prowl in the hills, and another 600 liked it. You could tell from the comments that locals wanted to believe it was true, if only to justify their unfounded fears that mountain lions are in the area. Some people spread rumors of their own.
“We saw one cross the road in Prichard a few years ago in front of us, but it was black,” Carrie Ann Bragg wrote. Kathy Baker Rice shared this tale: “I saw one on Bear Creek a few years ago, just about three miles from Buchanan, Ky., which is across the Big Sandy River from Prichard. Huge.”
Cara Nelson-Hall suggested that the mountain lion Hundley imagined was not alone. “They’re on Davis branch. We hear them,” she said. And Jim Reed cried conspiracy by state game officials. “I bet DNR released him out there, lol,” he said half-jokingly. “I would call them and ask them if they did and tell them to pay [you] for your pit bull.”
Appalachian Magazine bought into Hundley’s story, touting it and other alleged sightings of mountain lions in Appalachia under the headline “Mountain Lion Sighted in West Virginia.” Several readers told their own cougar tales in the comments of the magazine’s Facebook page and ridiculed the doubters.
“Anyone that thinks there are no panthers in West Virginia is a fool,” Opal Marcum said. “They are in Wayne County, Mingo County and Logan County for sure. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see you.”
But discerning readers quickly pegged Hundley as a hoaxer. “Also look out for the notorious Sasquatch,” Travis Boone mocked. “He’s around too!!”
Some critics assumed that the picture was real and that Hundley edited a mountain lion into it. But as it turns out, the entire photo is real (along with a second one like it). Hundley just didn’t take it.
The photos were published on three Facebook pages, Hunting Trophy Trips, Oregon Outdoor Hunters and Oregon Outdoor Council. Oregon State University forestry student Hayden England saw the cougar March 10 while working in the field near Vida, Ore., and the McKenzie River.
“This guy had no fear and just [waltzed] up to my pickup,” England commented underneath the Oregon Outdoor Council’s post. “… There was a home not even 100 yards from where I was.”
More than a week after Hundley plagiarized the photo, Hunting Trophy Trips called him out. “This is false information and not appropriate!” the page administrator wrote. “Be respectful people. We’re here to share people’s great experiences. Go out and make your Hunting Trophy Trip.”
Appalachian Magazine eventually deleted its story but without running a retraction.
Hundley’s hoax is reminiscent of a more famous myth about a big cat in West Virginia, one that haunted newspaper editor Jim Comstock. He reluctantly went along with Dr. William Birt’s “Great Panther Hoax of 1957” and regretted it the rest of his life.
“In my fifth decade I sinned against journalism,” Comstock wrote in his autobiography 7 Decades. “… I hoped that my malpractice in the field would be forgotten, or die on the vine and I would not be obliged to make it a part of this my official record. I hoped that my perpetration of this hoax, gentle as it was, would in time be swallowed up in the folklore of West Virginia.”
Birt was the brains behind the scam. He planned it as a prank on another West Virginia newspaperman, Pocahontas Times editor Cal Price, who believed until his dying day that mountain lions lived on Kennison Mountain. “Cal Price believes that if you don’t believe in panthers in West Virginia, then West Virginia panthers will not believe in you,” West Virginia Conservation magazine wrote in 1954.
Birt ordered a panther from Mexico with the intent of taking it to Kennison Mountain, killing it and then delivering the trophy to Price’s doorstep. He asked Comstock to document the fake news with a photo and keep it a secret until after Price died. The hitch in his plan: Price died after Birt ordered the panther but before it was delivered to him in a shipping crate.
That led to Plan B, which required the participation of another conspirator, high school teacher and hunter Ed Buck, to pretend to capture the panther. Comstock also recruited colleague David Cook, son-in-law Fred Ferguson and neighbor Sterling Spencer to help carry the crated critter off the mountain, but he didn’t let them in on the scheme.
In his Richwood News Leader, Comstock reported as fact the fictional account that Birt had orchestrated. They used the caged panther to raise money for the local fire company, fooling plenty of people in the process. But the Charleston Daily Mail soon exposed the hoax.
Feline hoaxes past and present have succeeded in West Virginia because the field for tall cat tales is fertile. Like Cal Price, many country folk simply want to believe they have ghost cats as neighbors. Farmer Jason Bowers’ story of seeing a black panther in Pendleton County even earned a mention in the first season of the television show “MonsterQuest” in 2007.
When confronted with evidence that he had used another man’s photo to trick people into believing a cougar was near his house, Hundley insisted, contrary to his own comments, that he said he never took the picture. But he is convinced that a mountain lion exists. “I still think it kill my dog,” he said via Facebook Messenger. “… I’ve never seen it, think I’ve heard it.”
John Lutz of the Eastern Puma Research Network, which is based in Maysville, W.Va., has been investigating reports of mountain lions for 50 years. He said no cougars have been reported in Wayne County in modern times but rattled off a list of more than 20 other counties in West Virginia where field researchers affiliated with his network have worked with professional biologists-zoologists to confirm sightings since 1965.
The Eastern Puma Research Network is definitely an outlier when it comes to cougar research, however. The Cougar Rewilding Foundation, which is based in Hanover, W.Va., has reason to want cougars to exist in the East but has never found proof that they do.
“Where cougars are well established, any knowledgeable individual can find evidence in a few days,” the foundation says on its website. “Yet our own field searches, sometimes within hours or a day of a sighting, have failed to produce evidence, and years pass between confirmations.”
That is the official line in West Virginia, too. Gary Foster, an assistant chief of game management for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, said none of the occasional reports of mountain lions or signs of them have been confirmed — unless they involved animals that escaped from captivity and were later recaptured. He also shot down conspiracy talk of West Virginia planning to reintroduce cougars into the wild.
As for the photo that Hundley posted, it fits a new pattern that has emerged in the social media age. “Over the past several years,” Foster said, “we have seen multiple pictures show up which were supposedly from West Virginia which turned out to be from Western states.”
So the next time someone tells you he or she saw a mountain lion in West Virginia or anywhere else in the eastern United States, don’t rush to believe it without firm, official evidence. They may well return to the region someday — elk are on on their way back to West Virginia this spring — but most rumors of ghost cats are just that.