BRASELTON — Could a big cat be prowling the town of Braselton?
Chad Nichols seems to think so.
The Falls of Braselton resident witnessed the unexplainable while driving to work at 5:30 a.m. on May 12.
Headed toward Interstate 85 on Ga. 211, Nichols remembers seeing something walk across the front lawn of the Chateau Elan entrance across from the Publix shopping center.
“Something ran across my headlights about 20 feet in front of my car,” he recalled.
At first, he thought it might be a sheep because of the way it “was kicking its back end up.”
But as his headlights washed over the creature, its appearance resembled not a docile farm animal, but a very large cat.
“I had a good look at it, and I was like, ‘No, that’s a panther,’” he said.
Nichols described the animal as dark in color with a long tail that stood 2 to 3 feet off the ground and was 4 to 5 feet in length.
An avid hunter, Nichols said he knows the difference between a bobcat, a coyote and other critters that sometimes roam the area.
“I know what’s in this region,” he said.
What makes Nichols’ sighting so unusual is that mountain lions no longer roam the state or much of the Southeastern U.S.
The last confirmed mountain lion sighting in Georgia was in 1973, according to Scott Frazier, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Hunting, urbanization and other factors may have contributed to the species’ disappearance.
Now, North America’s mountain lion population is mostly concentrated in the Western U.S., though Florida does have a small population of panthers.
As for a black jaguar — which people sometimes refer to as black panthers — these species are usually found in Central or South America.
But Nichols’ sighting is not the first in the area in recent months. In June, a motorist reported seeing a lion near the Lumpkin County line on Ga. 60. Since then, Frazier said DNR has been inundated with other possible sightings.
“We’ve gotten dozens of calls of sightings, sometimes (the cats are) light colored and dark,” he said.
Sightings have been reported in counties around the area including Lumpkin, Hall, White and Barrow.
“Some we’ve been able to discount and others there’s just no information,” said Frazier.
The History Channel even featured the big black cat legend on its MonsterQuest series, which explores the possible existence of urban legend monsters such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.
In an episode titled “Lions in the Backyard,” the show explored big black cat sightings ranging from Texas to Minnesota to West Virginia. The episode stated that in these areas people have reported seeing a mountain lion about 6 feet long and 250 pounds, but with “jet black fur.”
Even though the recent Georgia sightings remain unconfirmed, Frazier said if a big cat did wander into the area, it most likely did not do so by natural means.
“What’s far more likely is that somebody went to some animal market and ... then intentionally or unintentionally let it out,” he said.
He explained that the DNR has confiscated mountain lions in the past from Georgia residents keeping the animals as pets. In Georgia, it is illegal to own big predatory cats, such as mountain lions.
Similarly, rumors that a small group of the cats may have somehow survived, hidden deep in the North Georgia mountains, is also an unlikely scenario to Frazier.
“We don’t think the cats that were in Georgia up to the early 1970s are in some undiscovered cove in the mountains. We just feel like we would see some evidence, something to document.”
Mountain lions are most often 5 feet in length, tan and weigh 100 pounds, according to Frazier.
Even so, upon hearing Nichols’ description of the cat, Frazier couldn’t totally discount the sighting.
“There wouldn’t be a lot here that matches that description,” he said. “The closest that we would come would be dogs, and generally they wouldn’t be that size. It’s either something that doesn’t belong here or there’s a little error in the (size description).”
Nichols isn’t taking any chances. Two days after the encounter, he sent an e-mail to neighbors warning them to keep an eye out for the animal.
Since his first encounter, Nichols has not seen the big black cat again. Now, the case remains as mysterious as when Nichols and the unknown animal first crossed paths.
Could it be a large domestic cat? A dog? A mountain lion or other big cat that escaped from captivity? Or could Braselton have its own resident panther?
We may never know.