Photos (not local): Jaguarundi, black jaguar, and melanistic jaguar with spots visible
By Miriam Raftery
January 22, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--A rash of sightings of large black wildcats have been reported in East County, most recently in Spring Valley. While thus far no one has captured photos of the animals, the growing number of sightings from seemingly credible sources—including an East County Magazine reporter, raises some intriguing questions.
- Are these cats escaped exotic pets, or could one or more black jaguars, believed extinct in California, or smaller jaguarundis have found their way back into our region?
- Both jaguars and jaguarundis are critically endangered in the U.S. If these rare cats are regaining a toehold in our region, is anything being done to protect them from being shot by ranchers, law enforcement, or wildlife officials who may be unaware of their protected status?
Most recently, on January 5, Southwestern College language and literature professor Dan Moody told ECM that his mother, Dee Moody saw a jet-black, large cat that weighted at least 60 pounds walk across an open field behind her Spring Valley house on January 4 -- in broad daylight.
“It was definitely a cat, long and sleek,” Dee Moody, a retired high school teacher, told ECM. “My dog (a German Shepherd) weighs 70 pounds and it was at least as big as her…It was right in the middle of the field, sauntering across.” She described the large cat as “black and shiny” with a tail at least half as long as its body.”
Two months earlier, her neighbor, Manuel Domagsang, a retired U.S. Navy Chief, says he heard his five chickens making noise. He told ECM that he found “a big black cat is inside the coop.” The cat killed one chicken that night and around 5 a.m. the next morning, he checked on the coop and found the black cat was inside and had killed his remaining four chickens. The big cat leaped over a fence right in front of him, he said.
Dan Moody recalled, “Another strange thing that might be related is that on Christmas Day, a retired Southwestern College professor came across two dead coyotes at the end of her cul-de-sac on the eastern side of Dictionary Hill (in Spring Valley). Their throats had been slashed and they were still warm.”
Moody said a Sheriff’s deputy came with a rifle after the chicken killings and speculated that the animal might be “an illegal juvenile pet black panther that has escaped from someone’s home.” (The term ‘black panther’ typically refers to a black leopard or black jaguar, since there is no such species as a a black panther. About 6 percent of jaguars are black, and jaguars are found in northern Mexico, Arizona and Texas.) The deputy advised calling California Fish & Game and suggested the animal could be shot. However the animal has not been found.
ECM reporter Ariele Brooke, who is also a teacher, says she saw a large black cat that ran across a roadway in Deerhorn Valley in front of her vehicle a year or so ago. Asked how large it was, she extended her arms full width. “It looked like a black mountain lion and moved like a wild animal,” she said, adding that it had a long tail.
While there have been anecdotal reports of black mountain lions, or pumas, around the U.S. there has never been a single case documented. There have been several cases of black bobcats documented, including one killed and positively identified, however our local black cat sightings all had long tails, ruling out the black bobcat option here.
Back in February 2012, ECM reported that a librarian’s son in Jacumba had reportedly seen what he described as a “black panther” crossing Old Highway 80 in Jacumba – one of several recent sightings of the same or a similar animal, area residents of Jacumba and Boulevard told ECM.
Today, ECM asked Howard Cook, a member of the Jacumba Sponsor Group, about black cat sightings in his area. “Oh yes,” he said, adding there have been regular sightings of not only a large black cat, but also several sightings in recent years of a standard gold-and-black spotted jaguar at the recently refilled Lake Jacumba, just a few hundred yards from the Mexican border fence – which has a gap just east of Jacumba.
As for the black cat, he stated, “We think it’s a black jaguar from Mexico.” Cook voiced concern that large energy projects threaten to drain local aquifers and dry up water sources for wildlife such as the large cats in the area.
Jaguars are larger, powerful animals, typically 100 to 250 pounds – bigger than a mountain lion when fully grown. Black jaguars range from virtually all black to others with spots faintly visible.
Another option is the jaguarundi, also found in Mexico but substantially smaller than a mountain lion, around three feet long. While most jaguarundis are tan or brown, some are melanistic or dark in hue, ranging from grey to black. Unlike jaguars or mountain lions, which are nocturnal, jaguarundis tend to hunt during daylight hours. Some have described these cats as having a weasel-like appearance due to their narrow heads and small ears.
ECM isn’t the only news outlet to report black cat sightings in our region.
In December 2013, The UT San Diego reported that a couple near Miramar Reservoir claim to have seen a large grayish-black cat that they described as about 4 to 4 ½ feet long, heavier than a German shepherd. “It was walking and sniffing like a dog would sniff,” said the witness, who saw the large cat on rocky dirt lot before it vanished into brush on a steep hill facing the reservoir.
In December 2011, the San Diego Reader reported that a resident of Japatul Valley south of Alpine, Warren Stormthunder, claims he saw a jaguarundi. “He had the characteristic raked stance, longer back legs, shorter front legs. He was 25 feet away in the tall grass of the meadow,” Stomrthunder told the Reader.
A resident of Aguanga, near Warner Springs, posted on a blog site that in her rural area, she heard her dogs “going ballistic” in 2012 and went outside to see a startling sight on a rocky mountain outside. “The cat was on a huge boulder I have directly in the back of my house,” she said, adding it was near a barn where she has a pot belly pig, a goat and horses stabled. “It was about the length of a pit bull (body) black but glistening circles of grey. The head was small for the body but had a very long tail that dragged while the cat was creeping up the rocks. ..I got a good look at it and the ears were round…Living at the base of the Cahuilla mountain, many people have seen the same sort of cat.”
Numerous black cat sightings have also been reported in Northern California over the past several decades.
San Diego Sheriff’s Department officially responded to an ECM inquiry about policies for handling calls about large cats, black or otherwise.
“Our policy is if we respond to any animal, especially wild animals, we will call Animal Control or Fish & Game to respond because they are experts and we will only engage the animal if there is an immediate threat to human life,” Captain Scott Ybarrondo with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department San Marcos Station told ECM.
Fish & Game officials carry tranquilizer dart guns and can potentially relocate an animal in a problem area, though often there is not adequate staffing to respond to large animal sights.
But Sgt. Ybarrondo added that if an animal poses an “eminent life-threatening situation” even an endangered status would not protect it. Moreover an animal that destroys livestock—including chickens—can also be killed by authorities – though it’s illegal for an individual to kill a jaguar, jaguarundi or mountain lion in California.
In late December, a mountain lion sighted in urban Lemon Grove prompted a Sheriff press release urging the public to call and report additional sightings. Asked how deputies would respond to such a call, a deputy at the Lemon Grove substation told ECM’s editor that the lion would “probably be shot.”
San Diego County has recently been the site of controversy after Voice of San Diego published a series on “San Diego’s Wildlife Killers,” exposing how a secretive federal agency, Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has 18,700 animals countywide ranging from skunks to mountain lions. A Sacramento Bee investigation found the same agency killed illegally, indiscriminately and inhumanely, threatening entire ecosystems.
ECM contacted the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department, which routinely handles calls reporting not only mountain lions, but also bears. (East County has recently had a handful of black bear sightings, too.) Sergeant Anthony Padfield told ECM how the department handles calls of big cat or bear sightings.
“Our procedure would be to contact Fish & Game and have them to respond to the location. If our deputies are dispatched, we’re just there to protect the citizens.” He said wild animals, even large predators, are generally left alone unless there is an eminent danger such as going into someone’s house. ““Most of the time, with noise and cars, they will normally go back into the wooded areas or the mountains or hillsides. Would we just arrive on scene and shoot a bear or a mountain lion just because it’s roaming around? No, we wouldn’t,” he confirmed.
Rather than calling law enforcement or wildlife officials if you see a large cat – black or otherwise—consider taking alternative steps to cohabitate peacefully with wildlife.
You can protect chickens from wildcats by securing wire mesh around the coop, having a sturdy roof and high fencing, for example. Using guard dogs to protect cattle or sheep, such as a Great Pyrenees, can reduce predation by 93%. Keep pets indoors and night and don’t allow small children to play outdoors unattended in rural areas where mountain lions, coyotes or other predators may be present. When walking or hiking in areas frequented by large cats, you can carry a whistle, hiking stick, or pepper spray for protection, though attacks by mountain lions and jaguars on humans are rare. Smaller jaguarundis are not known to pose threats to humans.
East County Magazine is interested in hearing from other area residents who have seen a large black wildcat. We are especially seeking photos and videos to document the presence of these animals and help identify what species of wild cats are prowling around our backcountry.