CRESTVIEW — When Joshua Neel heard a noise and saw a black blur in his back yard north of town, his first thought was that it was a rogue raccoon or a house cat.
But when he took a closer look, he says he almost couldn’t believe what he saw.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” he said. “It was a really big cat … a black panther. I think it was about 2 feet at the shoulders, but from the tip of his tail to the tip of his nose I’d guess it was between 4 to 5 feet long. This was not a house cat.”
He estimated the animal weighed as much as 60 pounds, with a head as big as a pie plate. It bent his fence when it jumped over, he said.
Neel whipped out his phone and took a video of the animal as it slinked across his back yard, followed by a pair of curious guinea fowl.
Due to the shrubbery and trees, only fleeting glimpses of the large, dark, catlike creature were captured on camera before it darted out of view. Its size is difficult to determine from the video.
Neel believes the animal he saw was a black panther. If true, it would be the first recorded black panther spotting in Northwest Florida — and North America.
According to the nonprofit organization Big Cat Rescue, the North American black panther is widely believed to be a myth, and is commonly mistaken for one of several animals including melanistic (or dark-tinted) leopards, pumas and jaguars.
“None have ever been photographed or shot in the wild, and none have been bred. There is wide consensus among breeders and biologists that the animal does not exist and is a cryptid (a creature whose existence has never been documented),” the organization says. “Sightings are currently attributed to mistaken species identification by non feline experts, and … exaggeration of size.”
So, if it wasn’t a black panther, what was it?
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, panthers and bobcats are the two big cat species native to Florida. There are only 120 to 230 adult Florida panthers, and most of them live south of Lake Okeechobee, although some have been documented throughout the peninsula and even into Georgia.
After viewing the video, Susan Bass with Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, said it is unlikely the animal in Neel’s backyard was a panther or a bobcat.
“The cat has a long tail, so it’s not a bobcat. With that long tail it could be a Florida panther, but the voice of the man in the video says it’s a black cat — Florida panthers are tawny golden colored, not black,” Bass said in an email to the Daily News. “And if this is in Crestview, way up in the Panhandle, it’s very unlikely a Florida panther. So I’d say it’s a big house cat.”
Jayme Jordan, lead zookeeper at the Emerald Coast Zoo in Crestview, also said she believed the animal was most likely a house cat.
“There’s a second in the video where I can’t quite tell if it has the normal tabby cat stripes,” she said. “There are no black panthers, so it’s definitely not a black panther.”
Jordan also guessed the animal could be an elusive creature called a jaguarundi.
At least three more animal experts contacted by the Northwest Florida Daily News agreed. A jaguarundi is described as a “cat very similar genetically to the puma” by the Big Cat Rescue organization. It’s slightly larger in size than a domestic house cat and can grow up to 5 feet long, including a 20-inch tail, according to the Pangea Institute. Its coat can be reddish-brown or dark gray, and it typically hunts during the day.
But jaguarundi are elusive and known to mostly live in Brazil and southern Mexico, although rare sightings have been recorded in Arizona and Texas, animal experts say. There has never been an official sighting of a jaguarundi in Florida, and none has ever been recorded on camera or video.
Shelby Proie, a wildlife technician with the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge on Okaloosa Island, believes the animal is a jaguarundi.
“It looks too small to be a Florida panther, and its tail is the wrong length and shape to be a bobcat,” Proie said.. “(A jaguarundi) is the only animal that kind of makes sense. Maybe it’s an escaped pet? The guinea fowl didn’t seem fazed by it at all, which is weird.”
Neel, who works as a pastor at Destiny Worship Center in Crestview, said he has contacted the FWC and is working with an agent to determine what the animal could be. The Daily News reached out to the FWC but had not heard back as of Thursday afternoon.
Neel said he’s certain what he saw wasn’t a house cat, and is setting up a game camera in his yard to try and catch the animal again.
In the meantime, he said there’s only one thing he knows for certain.
“There definitely won’t be any children playing in the back yard without supervision.”