Panthers, Lions and Eagles: A Story of Memory and Reverence

Renae Brabham

By Renae Brabham

I was scrolling through social media one morning when I saw a photo of the last known Barbary lion, now extinct. A pilot had taken the grainy photo out of the door of a plane in 1925. It’s unclear the year they went extinct, but this appears to be the last actual photo. Proof in hand (or on film) is not always good enough. Disputers debate it to this day.

Lions with similar DNA touted to be Barbary’s in zoos around the world are likely mixed descendants. Barbary lions were huge! 600 pounds and over 6- to 9-feet long with a defining dark mane on its head and chest with a light-colored body — think Scar from “Lion King,” only not as skanky. My gosh, they were a magnificent species. Sadly, the reason for their extinction was unrestricted hunting. 

The photo struck a chord with me and reminded me of my own “sighting” over 40 years ago of the thought-to-be extinct Eastern black panther. I was working at a tiny country store in Dorchester County when a young man I knew pulled up and came in. His tailgate was down and I figured he must have a deer on it which wouldn’t have been unusual; a lot of the local fellows paraded their deer on the way back from a successful hunting trip. 

“What did you bag today?” I asked him after I rang up his drink.

“Come look,” he answered.

There were no customers in the store so I followed him out of the door. When I stepped past the porch column, I saw it — the mythical sleek black cat on the tailgate — and gasped. I ran my hand across its body. It was still soft and subtle. I was speechless and fought back tears that were threatening to spill down my face. I was both the saddest and luckiest girl to have seen it but wished even more that I’d caught it darting between pines in the straw-covered terra firma rather than lifeless on the back of a pick-up truck. 

There is no doubt, whatsoever. It was a black panther. And, no, it was not a melanistic cat or a case of mistaken identity. It laid in full sun beneath my hand, jet black with no mutation of color anywhere. It had a lithe slinky body and a long tail and weighed roughly 60-70 lbs. The jet black coat was very shiny and its eyes were open, the most beautiful aqua color.

I looked up at the young man in disbelief. He didn’t act proud or chatty and maybe even became a little solemn when he saw my reaction. I think he wished he hadn’t asked me to come look. He moved the panther back and shut the tailgate. Of all the questions to ask, the only thing that came out of my mouth was, “What did you kill it with?” 

He pointed to his bow hanging in the truck over the back window. 

I sympathized with the young man as he pulled off and I walked back into the store. I thought of the mockingbird I killed with my brother’s BB gun when I was 9 or 10 years old. I don’t think I believed I could even hit it when I pulled the trigger. I was sure it would fly away and I would talk about how close I got to it, or something of that nature. But, no. It fell to the cool sand under an oak tree and I buried it there. I hoped that when the last handful of dirt covered it, I would never think of it again — but that wasn’t the case. I was sick and heartbroken for the longest time and it still bothers me to this day. What in the world made me do that? To show my brother I was a better shot?  

The night after I saw the panther I called my dad. He told me he’d heard of local hunters spotting them since he was a little fella but had never seen one or heard of one being killed. 

If this were present day, I’m sure it would fill social media. The tiny little country store would be a busy convenience store with every person there snapping a picture with their camera. The headline would read, “Young man kills phantom thought to be extinct black panther, maybe the last of its species.” 

I’m glad it didn’t go that way, it would have done no good. I believe with all of my heart that he wishes he had not reached into his quiver for that arrow. It was possibly an impulse reaction from the adrenaline induced by seeing the magnificent animal. 

Even though we lived in the same town and still know each other, we never mentioned it again. I did, however, reach out several years ago when there was a sighting of a panther near Edisto Beach. I told him we both know they are/were out there. I didn’t hear from him and didn’t expect to.

I don’t worry about credibility when I tell this story. I know it’s a few notches shy of saying I saw Sasquatch but it happened. The truth is always stranger than fiction. I saw an Asian black panther up close for a photo shoot in NC once. It was definitely NOT that panther. It was much smaller, but with the same features. 

In the early 70s my parents received an urgent request to hurry to my grandmother’s house. When they arrived my cousin was sitting in the living room with his rifle between his knees looking proudly at his kill. Stretched across my grandmother’s tiny living room was a bald eagle. The wingspan was nearly 7-feet across. My cousin showed no remorse for killing the bird still on the endangered species list then. He bragged about what he would do with the feathers and talons. 

I have to admit that I didn’t feel sorry for him the next year when he lost a toe on a hunting jaunt. A rattlesnake crossed his boot, and the dumbass shot his own foot. 

To be clear, I am not against hunting legally at all, on the contrary. I anxiously await a freezer of venison as I write this. But I would never, ever, again, in my life ever pull the trigger on an animal I wasn’t going to eat except for poisonous snakes. And, other than the Palmetto Bug (a roach on steroids), I can think of no species I would want eradicated from the planet. 

My kids might chime in here and say “What about those two hamsters?” 

They were accidents, and that’s a story for a different day. As I look at the photograph that started the morning of retrospect I found myself in the seat of that airplane with the pilot in 1925, far above the now extinct Barbary lion as he looked through his lens at what he believed was the last of its species. I know how he felt. 

I think of the still quiet body of that Eastern black panther on the tailgate of a truck and how it felt to my hand. I wish that it, too, had been shot by a camera like the Barbary lion that day. Same goes for the bald eagle and the mockingbird.