The forests and fields of Northeast Georgia are full of mystique and strange creatures for many folks including hunters, hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, bikers, horse riders and everyone else who enjoys the outdoors. I know because I spent parts of a 30 year career as a Senior Wildlife Biologist with Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division, Game Management Section answering questions about strange wildlife sightings and investigating some of them.
They came mostly from a 16-county area including Fannin to Rabun, Forsyth to Stephens and Barrow to Hart Counties and everything in between three bordering state lines. Sometimes they trickled in over the phones, sometimes reported in person in the Gainesville DNR office, sometimes reported in the field .…could be anywhere from a country store to a Wildlife Management Area deer hunt. They amounted to hundreds per year.
The strange critter sightings crank up heavily in the spring, go strong through fall then calm down in winter as outdoor people activity slows down. They are fixing to crank up soon as spring arrives.
The furry list of what is really out there is long and includes deer, beavers, muskrats, groundhogs, foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, weasels, mink, otter, bobcats, house cats, dogs and black bears. The list of species not likely out there is shorter and includes panthers, cougars, pumas, mountain lions, lynx, wolves, wolverines, badgers, Tasmanian devils and wompus cats (whatever that is).
There are cases of internal mistaken identity and then there are external or crossover mistaken identity. Internal involves the first group that is sure enough really out there and goes something like this…”Hello, can I help you?” “Yes, you have to do something, its awful” says the truck driver who just came from Blairsville to Gainesville through the mountains on Hwy.129 in March. “What do you mean?” I said. He continues with “I just saw 29 orphaned bear cubs on the sides of the road out there eating grass without any mama bears with them at all. Someone is killing all the mama bears and leaving baby bears out there alone. You gotta do something!” “Hmmm, what color are the bear cubs?” I ask. “They are brown and only weigh about 8 or 10 pounds, they’ll starve!” “Sir, have you ever heard of groundhogs?
I think what you saw may be groundhogs eating the green grass in early spring after they awaken hungry from hibernation.” “Oh no,” says the truck driver, “I know what a ground hog is but these were brown bear cubs!” “Sir, we don’t have any brown bears in Georgia, only black ones.” “Well” he continues, “These were dark brown.” Knowing there was no way of convincing the guy, I said “Ok, I’ll have someone check on it.” But it did not happen.
This was the typical internal identity crossover because both bears and groundhogs do really exist in North Georgia.
There was another incident in North Hall several years ago.
Hall County Dispatch called and said there was a bear cub up a tree in someone’s front yard. Deputies and firefighters were on the scene and so was a large crowd of people. Sounded bad to me…where was mama bear and what would she do to get her cub back?
I loaded my dart gun and sped to the scene as did Wildlife Technician Walt Sutton. We arrived at about the same time, scanning the horizon for any sign of mama bear. It was a mob scene.
Deputies cleared us a path through the crowd to the base of a big oak tree. About 30 -feet up in a crotch was a little brown ball of fur with beady black eyes and tiny ears, staring down at all the commotion. Walt and I looked at each other rolling our eyes simultaneously and choking back a big chuckle. We pulled a fireman and deputy aside and stated matter of factly that the treed animal was an 8-pound groundhog not a 20 pound bear cub.
They did not believe us. How could he get up there? “Chased by a dog”, I said. I said the only way I could prove it to you would be to shoot the little furry ball with this big old dart and that would not be pretty.
If General Beauregard Lee survived the heavy dose of drug, he would not survive the fall from the tree. We suggested to get all the people cleared out of here so the “cub” could come down on his own and go find “mama bear”. They did and that’s what happened or so everyone thought.
More common are the external crossovers where an animal on the real list is mistaken for one that is not. A few years ago, I took a call from the Forsyth County side of Lake Lanier and the caller said “You have to come over here and get rid of this badger!” “Badger?” I said, “Are you sure?” “Oh yes” was the answer, “I watch him go in and out of his hole, he is brown with a short tail and sometimes flattens out on the ground or stands up on his back legs.” “Does he have a black mask like a raccoon and big long claws?” I inquire. “No, not really” was the answer “but he weighs about 25 pounds and can climb trees when my dog gets after him.” “Does he have long flat front teeth like a beaver, little beady eyes and a short flat furry tail?” “Why yes!” says the caller. “Maam, I believe what you have is probably a 10-pound groundhog, not a 25 pound badger! The nearest badger to North Georgia is about 1,000 miles away and if you had a badger, he would tear your dog to pieces, not just go up a tree.” By the way, every critter caller exaggerates the weight of the critter!
The above true stories pale in comparison to the frequent cougar, black panther and wolf sightings that spread fear and terror through Northeast Georgia as these predators threaten to eat pets, children and old folks right off the front porch!
Stay tuned for my next month’s column as we explore the list of predatory big critters that may or may not really exist in the forests of this corner of Georgia.