Discover more from North Carolina Rabbit Hole
Panthers Aren't Real
I looked into a thing that I'd heard a long time ago: That the screaming cat noise that's played at Carolina Panthers games doesn't actually come from a panther. But this—THIS—goes much deeper.
Shortly after I moved to Charlotte in 2005, I became a Carolina Panthers fan because it was much better than being a fan of the Cleveland Browns. A few years later, I became the producer of the Panthers postgame show on a local television station. A few years after that, the production moved from the station to the stadium. It was there that I first heard a piece of information that I hadn’t actually considered before: The screaming panther sound—the noise that you’d hear during home games whenever the Panthers did something good like get a first down or make a third down stop—was not actually the sound that a real panther makes.
I sat on that information for a long time. Not because of the show. Not because I was a cowardly journalist afraid of Big Panther. No. I sat on it because that piece of information was so insignificant that there was no venue where I could properly write about it. Not until the North Carolina Rabbit Hole came along, anyway.
So last year, I decided to look into it. My first stop was to bring the “screaming panther” sound to an expert to get an opinion, so I contacted the North Carolina Zoo. They put me in touch with Jenn Ireland, the curator of mammals. And not even a minute into our conversation, Ireland said something that stopped me cold. “Well, the problem is, there's no such thing as a panther,” she said. “That's the biggest problem.”
The Origins of the Carolina Panthers name
The name of the team predates the actual team by years. In December 1989, eventual team owner Jerry Richardson got a PNTHRS license place for his 1990 Bentley (although he later moved to it a 1962 Rolls Royce that he didn’t drive very often). In April 1992, while he was trying to convince the NFL to award him an expansion franchise, he’d already made it known that he wanted blue and black colors, and he wanted the team to be called the Carolina Panthers. “It’s a terrific name,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s powerful. It’s elegant. It’s sleek. It’s got a great profile. There are all kinds of things you can do with it.”
At first, the NFL wasn’t buying it. “We’ve discussed the color black simply because of the obvious negative implications that have been suggested by gangs wearing those colors,” John Wiebusch, NFL Properties’ vice president of creative services, told the Observer in September 1992. “It’s not an image that we particularly like, nor do we seek.” Black, to the NFL, was bad enough. The league also worried that the color and the name might conjure up an association with the Black Panthers.
So Richardson decided to tone down the black. But he got to keep the name. There was no second choice, he’d say later.
Not long after that, the screaming panther noises started, as evidenced by this direct quote featured in the Observer in 1995:
The angry cat sound quickly became part of the Panthers experience, although not one that was particularly crucial. That sound doesn’t win games. It doesn’t sell tickets. It’s just sort of an interesting data point in the broader Carolina Panthers universe. “I don’t think it’s cool,” says Tom Sorensen, a longtime Charlotte Observer sports columnist who’s now retired. “It’s sort of numbing. You’re used to it. It’s like the sound of an ice drop in the refrigerator.”
Regardless of whether it was cool, there’s another question: Was it accurate?
Well, again, that question is moot if there is no universal definition of what a panther is. “That is not a species of cat,” Ireland told me. “There is no panther. That's the bigger issue, I think, right?”
Panther’s Just Another Word For Nothin’ Left To Lose
The fact that a panther isn’t a species of big cat is one of those sorts of things that many people will hear and say “Duh, obviously,” even though I was completely oblivious to this fact. To get technical, there is a genus of big cat called the Panthera, which includes jaguars, leopards, lions, tigers, and snow leopards. Cougars, however, are part of the Puma genus.
“A black panther is usually just the melanistic version of either a jaguar or a leopard,” Ireland says (melanistic means an excess of pigment, which makes the fur and skin black). “So this sound that the Panther makes is probably not right, because both jaguars and leopards roar. They don't scream. Then you've got the cougar. The cougar has, like, 800,000 names. And one of the names that people call it is a panther. Cougars do not roar. They scream.”
Basically, Ireland says, you have two kinds of cats: Roaring cats and purring cats. A roaring cat can’t purr, and vice versa. “It all has to do with their hyoid bone that's in their throat,” Ireland says. “In the roaring cats, the hyoid bone is not ossified, so it vibrates, which creates that roaring sound. But in cats that can purr, that hyoid bone is ossified. It's solid. So they can't roar.”
After listening to the Panthers’ sound effect, Ireland thinks that the screaming cat resembles the noise made by a cougar, and not a jaguar or leopard. But while leopards or jaguars can be black, cougars cannot.
So, just to be super nitpicky, if you want to have a black panther, it’s going to growl. If you want a cat that screams, like the sound that’s played at the stadium, that’s a cougar, which isn’t black. Hence the Carolina Panther—the one on the 50 yard line—is either the wrong color, or it’s making the wrong noise.
I did get a second opinion on this. Suzanne McLaren at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History told me she also thinks the screaming Carolina Panther actually sounds like a cougar (specifically, the Puma concolor). She also says she doesn’t understand the whole “panther isn’t a real animal” thing, because mammal experts tend to be a lot less strict about names than, say, bird experts. But the cougar does go by a lot of different names: panther, painter, mountain lion, puma, catamount (which sometimes refers to bobcats and lynx), Indian devil, Alleghenian cougar, Adirondack cougar, American lion, Pennsylvania lion, brown tiger, bender (that’s Pennsylvania Dutch), tiger tail, and long-tailed cat. Yes, there was once an animal that people called the Carolina Panther. Yes, it once roamed this state. It was basically the same animal as the Nittany Lion of Penn State fame. Today, though, most scientists think that the cougar is functionally extinct across most of the southeast— and only exists in the wild way down in the south of Florida. It’s known as—wait for it—the Florida Panther. Not the Jacksonville Jaguar.
But again, the actual, extinct Carolina Panther was not this animal, which is actually a jaguar or leopard:
Last thing here. The team has, from time to time, brought in what it calls “live panthers” to games and events. The guy who provides those live panthers says—via his website—that the live Carolina Panther you see on the field or in videos is actually a black leopard.
So where does that sound actually come from, then?
That sound came from somewhere, though. But where?
This one appears to have been cracked by a guy on Twitter, albeit eight years ago. In true Twitter fashion, he made a great insight, and hardly anybody saw it:
My original sources told me that the original screaming cat sound from the stadium is identical to the one at the beginning of “Black Cat” by Janet Jackson. Not merely close. IDENTICAL. Listen for yourself:
Jackson and the Carolina Panthers famously crossed paths one time. In 2004. When, during the halftime show of the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake accidentally ripped off part of her costume and exposed her breast to millions of people on TV. Things did not go well for the Panthers after that. They lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots, 32-29.
Now, look. I don’t know what Jerry Richardson was into back in 1989. But even though “Black Cat” was released as a single in 1990, it was included on Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” album, which came out on September 19, 1989. A reminder: Jerry Richardson put the PNTHRS license plate on his Bentley a few months later, in December. I’m not saying that the Richardson family was so smitten by a sound effect from a then-unknown track off of “Rhythm Nation” that they named an entire NFL football team after it. But I’m not not saying it.
UPDATE (4/28/23): After I posted this story, two of you tracked down something that I had been unable to find: The original source of the screaming cat sound effect. Matthew Tee and Benjamin Reed both replied to say that the original noise comes from a sound effects collection called Animal Trax, which was released by The Hollywood Edge in 1967. Per one site: “It's a cleaner version of a part of Valentino Excited Cougar and Valentino Fierce Black Lion. It's possible that it was originally a Disney sound effect.” The first apperance of that sound effect, supposedly, was in the Disney documentary “The Living Desert” (1953), which is available on Disney+! However, a quick scan of that documentary didn’t turn up the sound.
Anyhow, the scream is listed, officially, as “PumaCougarRoarClas AT016701,” meaning it’s a cougar. Not a “black panther,” which is actually a leopard or jaguar or something like that.
Bonus! Here’s a playlist of cheesy but endearing Carolina Panthers songs.
More Carolina Panthers coverage from the North Carolina Rabbit Hole: