Three years after the debate started over the existence of large black cats in and around Tate’s Hell, an island woman says she has spotted one in residential Eastpoint.

On Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7:45 p.m., Mary Lou Short was returning to her St. George Island home after a church meeting when she encountered something totally unexpected.

The night was overcast and South Bayshore was very dark but Short noticed movement on the north side of the road and braked by the entrance of the Las Brisas development to avoid hitting what she thought was a bear.

The animal that crossed the street was less than six feet from her car and was brightly illuminated by her headlights.

Short said it was a very large, very black cat. She said the cat came out of Las Brisas headed toward the bay and disappeared between two houses while she watched.

“Its snout was not as pointed as a dog’s, but not as short as a domestic cat,” she said. “It was far enough away from my lights that I got to see the whole body. I saw it snout to tail. I am absolutely positive I saw what I saw. I was so in awe I was not afraid. I’ve never seen an animal like this. This was absolutely not a bear. No housecat that I know is as large as this animal, but it moved like a cat.”

Short said the animal did not appear panicked as it loped across the road with “a very smooth gait” and she did not believe it was pursuing prey. It showed no fear or interest in her car and didn’t accelerate its pace when it entered the light.

She described the cat as “larger than a German shepherd and very glossy with short fur.” Short said the animal was not a coyote.

“There is a black coyote on the island,” said Short. “I have seen that black coyote. This was larger than any coyote. This animal was certainly heavier than most large dogs I’ve seen.”

Cryptobiologist and author Scott Marlowe, who has visited the area on more than one occasion searching for evidence of big cats, said Short may have overestimated the size.

“It’s the shock factor,” he said. “When you see something so unexpected, it tends to impress you as bigger than it really is.”

Short said the body of the cat was about as long as her car was wide and the tail was about three-quarters of the length of the body and held out straight.

After viewing pictures of differing cats online, Short said, “What I saw had the characteristics of puma, panther or jaguar.” She emphasized the head was large and boxy, the ears roundish but tipped with a point and the body heavy and muscular.

Carrabelle’s Cal Allen has theorized that Central American jaguarondis, also known as otter cats, may be the mystery cats living in Tate’s Hell. Short said the cat she saw was much larger than an otter cat, which tops the scales at 20 pounds. She also said the cat did not have a jaguarondi’s rounded ears.

The original debate over big cats in the swamp was sparked by two videos posted in March 2010 on YouTube by Larry Miller of Carrabelle. After viewing the videos, Short said the animal depicted was not the animal she saw cross in front of her car, which she said was much larger and heavier.

Elaine Kozlowsky, who lives less than a quarter mile from Las Brisas, said she sighted a tawny-colored panther about six months ago.

“I often get up in the middle of the night,” Kozlowsky said. “I looked out the back window toward the bay. Our yard is lighted and I caught sight of a huge tawny cat coming down out of one of the trees. I saw the rear of it. It had a long tail that was quivering like in a movie. It came out of the tree and went straight down the bank so I only got a glimpse. It was enormous.”

Wildlife biologist Adam Warwick who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has stated he believes there are Florida panther in Tate’s Hell but biologists say the native pumas are always tawny and never black. When wet, a tawny panther can appear much darker than when dry.

Short said the cat’s coat was very shiny and it could have been wet. If the cat is not a Florida panther, what else could it be?

The jaguar is the only big black cat known to inhabit North America, the only member of the panther family found in the New World and the third largest cat after lions and tigers. Jaguars are normally spotted but there is a rare black form that is actually an expansion of the dark spots so they cover the whole pelt.

In the 1880s a few jaguar still remained in south Louisiana but they have not inhabited Florida for thousands of years. Currently the nearest suspected breeding population is in Arizona.

Marlowe said he believes the animal spotted by Short is a black Florida panther. “Just because the biologists have not caught one and put it in a cage doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he said. “They are out there. I have seen one.”

In 2012, a contractor working at St. James Bay Golf Resort east of Lanark Village reported seeing a large black cat cross the main road in broad daylight heading towards a pond. Could this be the same cat? The resort is only 20 miles from Eastpoint. Both Florida panthers and jaguars typically range much further looking for food or mates.

Marlowe believes more than one of the black mystery cats is roaming the Florida peninsula, and said he and his son observed one near Chiefland last February. Allen claims to have seen both tawny and black panthers in Tate’s Hell. Jim Broaddus who operates Bear Creek Feline Center in Panama City has also reportedly seen a large black cat in the swamp.

Last February, a group of cryptobiologists including Marlowe and his son Robert as well as experienced monster hunters Lee Hales and Ken Gerhardt, spent several days in Tate’s Hell searching for the “Carrabelle Cat.”

Gerhard and Hales created a cutout of a black cat to photograph at the site of the original video captured by Miller. The pair hoped to get an idea of the size of the animal in the original footage.

After study, Hales and Gerhardt said the shape of the cat in Miller’s film was characteristic of a domestic cat rather than a wild species and that the cat in the film was too small to be a Florida panther.

Hales said the cat in the film was a large house cat. Scott Marlowe and Allen disagreed with their findings.

Warwick spoke with Short over the telephone on Thursday, Jan. 17.

“If there is a big cat in that neighborhood, there will be other sightings,” he said.

In a telephone interview last week, Hales said he will try to arrange a visit to the area sometime in the next two weeks and hopes to use night vision equipment to survey an area near Short’s sighting.