In the early 1990s in Bandytown, West Virginia, an unincorporated community of less than 100 people in rural Boone County, a young boy mysteriously disappeared while playing in the woods with his older brother. When police eventually found his body, his neck had been broken and his body mostly eaten. Though it didn’t match the signs, his death was chalked up to a bear attack.
His older brother, however, reported seeing a large, black, wild cat snatch the child by the neck. Neighbors heard what sounded like a woman or child wailing in the night, a common noise of big cats. But West Virginia has no such panther population. Unless, of course, it actually does.
There’s little evidence to suggest that America’s jaguar population is bigger than thought. There’s also not much evidence of that child’s death — it’s just a story on Reddit. But of all the (allegedly true) stories on subreddits like r/Missing411 and r/TheTruthIsOutThere, where people document the disappearances and deaths of hikers, campers and anyone else who seems to have gone missing in nature, the theory that some of these deaths are caused by jaguars and other big cats far beyond their usual habitats is ultimately one of the more “realistic” possibilities — and plenty of people corroborate it.
In fact, the Appalachian big cat theory has enough lore to warrant numerous episodes on the Travel Channel’s Mountain Monsters. On the show, professional hunters and trappers search the woods for creatures real, mythical and somewhere in-between. In one episode, they search for a bear-like creature in Boone County known as the “Silver Giant.” In others, they hunt for a “Death Cat,” and discover massive claw marks on trees seeming to prove its existence. Numerous episodes are devoted to discovering species of Appalachian Bigfoot.
While this show (and others of the quixotic “quest for Bigfoot” genre) tend to lean toward camp and kitsch, the narratives shared on Reddit are often more genuine — and terrifying. An uncatalogued big cat population is in the realm of natural possibility: People may purchase and breed jaguars, tigers, lions and other predatory cats illegally. Then, when they become too large, these animals are either intentionally let loose or escape on their own. Panthers are indigenous to the southeastern U.S., though the population has declined so significantly that there are only an estimated 150 to 200 adult panthers exclusively in the Florida Everglades. Jaguars are thought to populate the Southwest along the U.S.-Mexico border, too, though only one has ever been spotted. Cougars and bobcats exist in most parts of the country, but none exhibit the appearance of black panthers/jaguars.
But what’s the big deal about a few extra jaguars? That’s where things get creepier. r/Missing411 is an unofficial, independent subreddit for discussing the theories and research of former police investigator David Paulides, who through a series of books has reported extensively on inexplicable disappearances and deaths in U.S. National Parks. Cases involving potential suicides, crime, drowning, faking one’s own death and animal predation are excluded from Paulides’ work, but instances of potential cryptid sightings, like Bigfoot, or of animals outside of their natural territory, such as panthers, often make their way into the subreddit. Even with these exclusions, thousands of alleged cases are documented in Paulides’ 13 books and among the group.
While r/Missing411 is primarily devoted to fact and logic regarding such mysteries, r/TheTruthIsOutThere allows for more room for the supernatural — aliens, demons, shapeshifters, ghosts, ancient creatures that feed off the human spirit. Many of the most popular stories in this group pertain to camping, hiking and National Park excursions.
With more than 350,000 members between the two groups, there are thousands of stories of strange encounters, people disappearing without a trace and seemingly impossible deaths. Even the most science-devoted might begin to wonder why there are so many cases of experienced hikers essentially falling off the face of the earth, or why bodies are found atop inaccessible mountains.
Maybe there’s a logical explanation to all of it. Ultimately, the idea that a hungry Bigfoot or cryptid wolf creature is actually a perfectly average jaguar outside of its usual range is one of the more logical theories. But which theory is most comforting: the wacky concept of a Bigfoot that’s never been found, or the very real existence of carnivorous panthers, a few hundred miles away from home?
Either way, being quarantined indoors feels a bit better now.