I was sixteen years old when my parents decided to move from our ranch house near Kansas City to the middle of the remote Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas. One of my first eye-opening experiences there was one night when our dog (a rather formidable cross between a Pyrenees mountain dog and a Newfoundland hound) began barking, as she often did when she found a raccoon or opossum back at the city. As always, my sister and I grabbed a flashlight and ran to see what new “varmint” the dog had found in ‘them thar hills.’
We were quickly surprised when we approached the dog to hear a horrifying fight, with the roar of an animal that was definitely not a varmint. “Beast! Beast! Get back here!” we yelled at our dog in an unsuccessful attempt to call her away from whatever this thing was. Moments later, we ran close enough to use the flashlights. To our great surprise, a very large set of yellow eyes appeared in the darkness, looking at us, then taking flight on a literal run straight up a twenty foot pine tree, only to jump out over the dog’s head and vanish into the darkness.
That adolescent cougar was the first of many new things that I would encounter in the remote Ozarks. I could tell tales of witchcraft, murder, possessed animals… Perhaps at some point, I’ll speak more of these. But for now, I’ll settle on a local legend of the area – the Hurricane River monster.
I’m a scientist by profession, and though I don’t deny the existence of the scientifically unexplainable, I’m usually skeptical of tales and such. I do, however, realize that much folklore is rooted in truth, so I often find myself investigating tales to see if there is any truth in them. That was the case with the Hurricane River monster.
Near the community of Pindall, Arkansas, there is a cave rich with legend known as Hurricane River Cave. It has been used by local people since before the Civil War as everything from an outlaw hideout to a commercial tour cave. I recently toured the cave with the current owner, an old man with a blind eye who is broken down with age. At one point, as I listened to his stories over the hour long tour, we came to a large cavern in the cave (shown in the photo) where his tone changed as his story became more of a relived memory…
Years ago, as I understood it, when he was much younger, that part of the cave was still largely unexplored. He told that the locals had long talked about a monster in the area, but he never suspected his cave to be its lair. He said that he knew there were three “fair sized” bears that lived in that part of the cave, but that they didn’t really bother anybody. (A “fair-sized bear” in that area would be a black bear, Ursus americanus, of about 200-300 pounds.) He said that one day as he was near the cave, a horrifying noise came from within. When he looked to see what it was, he saw one of the bears run out of the cave, gravely injured.
Understandably too terrified to investigate the cave, he called the authorities, who in turn called in a team of zoologists and animal control specialists. With the man as their guide, they entered the cave, and after a long effort, they located the monster in the cavern where he stood telling me the story. He said there was blood everywhere – the walls, the cave ceiling – the small subterranean stream below ran red. The biologists tranquilized the monster, took it from the cave, and told him that they suspected it was some type of hybrid, but that they would need to do further testing on it. He never heard from them again.
I asked the man about some details, and after some questioning, I was able to gather that it was some type of huge cat. The biologists told him they thought it was some type of hybrid lion, probably a progeny from a zoo escapee (which is always the story they give). I asked him if it could have been a cougar, only to see his eye grow distant once again in horrified memory. “It weren’t no panther. Them bears were torn clean in half. There were pieces of ’em all over this room.”
As a curious scientist, I began investigating both the cave itself and the legend of the monster. The cave is a very old cave that contains rare remains of a number of extinct species, as well as human remains. It has very good skeletons of prehistoric bears, Ursus americanus amplidens, as well as Smilodan floridanus, one type of sabertooth. The cave has become a graveyard over eons of animal and human use. But that didn’t really tell me anything about the possible identity of the monster.
So I began investigating any local legends about big cats when I quickly learned of the so-called “wampus cat.” According to Cherokee legend, the wampus cat was a half-woman half-cat that was transformed by a medicine man. Wampus cat legends are fairly common across the Southern US, but most are from the Cherokee home range in the Southern Appalachians. Yet there in the Ozarks, the legend existed. Was it simply a remnant of legend from the renegade Cherokee that fled to the area during the exodus on the Trail of Tears? Was it an attempt of the simple-minded mountain people to try to explain by a familiar legend a very real creature that inhabits the remote forests there?
Ultimately, I never found out what happened to the monster after the zoologists took it. I found a few bits of evidence that stated it was an unidentified hybrid. But after interviewing some of the locals, the legend is held there as fact. Furthermore, the people claim to have seen more than just the one in that area.
Does the wampus cat actually exist in the remote Ozark Mountains? Could it possibly be some type of hybrid cat? Could it be a remnant population of sabertooth that have somehow managed to survive in the deep forest? My questions remain unanswered, with only a glimpse of the horror in the old man’s fading eye as he told me, “It weren’t no panther.”