Earlier this month, a family in Acadiana, La., saw and photographed a large, mysterious black cat. Believing they might have seen a panther or other feral cat, they contacted wildlife officials, who told them that while cougars do exist in the area, they are not all black.

According to a news report by Hope Ford of KLFY-TV, at around 7:30 pm, a large black animal was spotted in the field behind a home.

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“You could see it from the fence and it was pretty big,” said Karen Fory, whose brother-in -law first noticed the animal. “So, I came back to the truck and got the binoculars,” Fory explained.

Cathy Irwin, who lives in the home, said Fory called her over immediately to see what they considered to be a black panther. “We were standing about 100 feet away and you could see it,” Irwin said. “It was very large.”

Fory took several photographs of the animal before it wandered behind some trees.

“It’s a very dangerous animal, and anything can happen at any given time with that, especially with the children in these neighborhoods,” Irwin told the TV station. So she called Wildlife and Fisheries agents, who came to investigate but found no trace of the feline, nor were there any other reports of the creature.

The cat does indeed look unusually large in the photographs Fory provided to the news media and wildlife officials. But it’s important to note the image was shot on a high-definition camera, which means it can be greatly enlarged, and that she used a telephoto lens, which magnifies the size of the image.

Even small and medium-sized objects can appear very large when photographed through zoom lenses and enlarged. This doesn’t suggest that the image is hoaxed or staged in any way, just that when most people see the image they may not realize how small the cat is compared to the rest of the scene.

In order to help judge the size of the mysterious feline in the photographs, wildlife officials followed up by bringing with them a life-size silhouette of a puma, and photographed it in the same location (a short video analysis can be found on YouTube). The conclusion: The “black panther” was much smaller than the eyewitnesses estimated — and than the photographs made it appear — and was likely a large domestic house cat prowling for bugs and rodents.

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This is not the first time that a large domestic cat has been sighted and mistaken for a big cat. Last year a “lion” was reported and photographed in Essex, England. It caused a brief panic as police were called and children were warned to stay indoors lest they be mauled by the ferocious beast. However a woman identified her Maine Coon house cat (which is one of the world’s largest domestic breeds) named Teddy Bear as the “Essex Lion” that briefly terrorized the area.

People are simply not very good at estimating the size of objects, especially when they are excited or alarmed. Unknown objects may seem larger than they actually are, and details can become confused. This is not only a lesson in eyewitness testimony and perception, but perhaps more importantly good news for the residents of Acadiana.

Image: A real panther is seen close up. iStockphoto