Florida's Big Cat

by Kris Thoemke

Rare. Elusive. Wary. These are three good adjectives that describe one of the world’s most endangered species, the Florida panther. They are also the attributes that have allowed the panther to survive. But, as their habitat continues to shrink, even the most keen and cunning panther may not be able to survive.
Five hundred years ago the panther was found in the southeast, as far north as Tennessee and as far west as Louisiana. However, as humans moved into the panther’s habitat, conflicts arose and the population began to shrink as cats were killed and habitat was altered making it less suitable. Today the estimated 70 remaining cats live in southwest Florida including the eastern part of Lee County.

The panther is a sub-species of the cougar, a species that once lived from Alaska to the southern regions of South America. A highly adaptable species, cougars can live in mountains, rainforests and even deserts. If there was food, a place to hide and plenty of space, chances are there were cougars.

Plenty of space for a male panther is at least 150 square miles. The female’s range is much smaller with several females living within the home territory of one male. With all but possibly a few panthers living south of the Caloosahatchee River into the Everglades, the number of 150 square miles territories is limited. Even if the panthers alive today could produce twice as many kittens each year, there would not be enough habitat for all the males. Lack of additional habitat essentially limits the size of the population.

The solution to the problem, increase the panther’s range, is easier to imagine than accomplish. Scientists are debating whether panthers could survive north of the River, the most logical place to look for new habitat, while others are more skeptical. Regardless of who is right, there is a significant obstacle in the way of panthers moving northward. The Caloosahatchee River is the functional equivalent to a 100 foot high brick wall to a human. A few daring and lucky people might be able to scale the wall and get to the other side but it’s not a feat that everyone can do. Swimming across the river is something panthers are capable of doing but rarely do. There are only a few documented instances of panthers crossing the River.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency charged with developing a recovery plan for this endangered species, is considering possible re-establishment sites in areas of the panther’s historic range. There are two significant problems with this idea. First is the challenge of finding large enough tracts of land in the southeast where cats could be released and have the remote habitat they prefer. The second problem is getting enough panthers to release in these new habitats. The only source of Florida panthers is here in southwest Florida and the population is already dangerously small. Human intervention in the form of raising cats in captivity or introducing cougars from western populations may be necessary.

In an attempt to protect the panther’s existing habitat, the FWS conducted a study to identify the cat’s critical habitat in southwest Florida. Most of the land east of Interstate 75 that is not already developed was designated as either primary or secondary habitat and persons planning to alter the landscape are required to consult with the Service prior to beginning work to determine if their planned activities will have an adverse impact on the panther. If the Service determines that there is likely to be an impact, it could require the landowner to pay a mitigation fee, change their plans or possibly have the FWS say no to the project.

Saying no is not something the FWS is anxious to do because of the implications associated with this action. Landowners who feel they have been denied the right to use their land in a reasonable manner, could claim that the government has effectively taken the land from the landowner. These instances usually escalate into prolonged legal battles.

While humans argue such issues, the panther is oblivious to what happens in the courtrooms. Every day, each cat focuses on its instinct and skills to survive. Prime among these activities is the need to find food. Panthers are pure carnivores; no vegetables ever touch their lips. In an ideal world, the panther’s favorite food is a deer. But, they also eat wild hogs, raccoons and armadillos. A silent predator, panthers stalk their prey and then pounce on the unsuspecting critter for the kill. If the meal is a raccoon or armadillo, they will eat the entire animal. If it is a hog or a deer, panthers drag their kill to a safe place and will eat from the carcass for several days.

If you have the idea that you want to venture into the Big Cypress National Preserve, the one million acre stronghold for the Florida panther and hope to see one of these cats, be prepared to spend a lot of time looking for one. Unless you catch one off guard, panthers are only seen if they choose to be. Their tawny brown color is an excellent choice for blending into the surrounding environment. Armed with keen senses, these cats usually are either long gone once they hear you approach or they have blended into the background so well that you can walk right by them and not notice their presence.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in the panther’s habitat and have yet to have a panther encounter. I’ve seen plenty of tracks, scent marks and scratching posts but a bonafide sighting remains unattained. That doesn’t mean you won’t get lucky and see a panther on your first outing. People do see them.

The future of the Florida panther is not secure. There is a possibility that we will lose this species as its habitat continues to be impacted. With the east and west coasts of Florida becoming increasingly crowded, developers are planning more and more inland development; the same land the panther uses. Conflicts already exist between the regulatory agencies and the developers over loss of panther habitat and more conflicts are certain to come. Relying on the regulatory process to save the panther is a huge mistake. That is not the function of the regulations governing land development.

A recovery plan with a good chance for success is needed and every day without one further endangers this species. Scientists probably only have one chance left to rescue this species. The critical question is will they be able to develop and implement a plan before there aren’t enough panthers left in the wild to implement the plan? The answer is, we don’t know. •

Elusive Cats Easy To See At Naples Zoo

People in southwest Florida can learn more about Florida panthers by visiting the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. In cooperation with support from the National Wildlife Federation, the Zoo created Panther Glade, a place where guests can get a close-up look at three cougars through glass panels.

The cats are part of the exhibit which also features graphics about the natural history of Florida panthers and the story of how monitoring efforts by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to wildlife are helping to save the panther. Guests also find meaningful actions they can participate in to help panthers and the natural wilderness areas we all depend on for water and other resources.

Guests can then test their knowledge at a series of True/False flip panels and learn fascinating information like how having more panthers will save human life. And while adults engage with the various graphics, children can make panther tracks in the sand and imagine what it might be like to be a panther on the prowl. The molds for these were cast from actual tracks left by panthers in Collier County.

But the Zoo’s efforts for panthers go beyond this one exhibit. “The Zoo supports a variety of conservation and research in places like Peru and Madagascar that help educate people about their endangered animals and habitats. It’s only natural and right we do the same with our own local endangered panthers,” explained Tim Tetzlaff, the Zoo’s Director of Conservation & Communications. Toward that end, the Zoo hosts an annual Save the Panther Day event. Proceeds from this event benefit the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge (www.floridapanther.org), the official support group of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. All year long at the Zoo, guests can join the Friends and purchase panther gifts that support their programs.

The Zoo also supports the efforts of the Panther Posse, a coalition of school children coordinated by Florida Gulf Coast University’s Wings of Hope Program. The Zoo recently wrote and designed an informational brochure about panthers and the Posse that is now being distributed from the governor’s office.

Saving the Florida panther is a task that requires the work of many dedicated scientists and individual citizens like you. By visiting the zoo, supporting the National Wildlife Federation or Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge, you can help support programs that enhance panther habitat. The Refuge includes critical corridors of land that connect the panther’s habitat.

Until recently, public access to the Refuge was limited to specially arranged tours for educational groups. In early June, a public hiking trail opened off State Road 29. The Zoo provided matching funds for a grant to produce interpretive graphics to be placed along this new trail later this year. The Zoo will also be donating design work for these new graphics. Visitors now have a chance to see panther habitat and learn more about this incredible cat. •

from the July-August 2005 issue

photographs by Larry Richardson,
Caribbean gardens: The Zoo in Naples
The Zoo
at Caribbean Gardens
1590 Goodlette-Frank Rd.
open 9:30am-5:30pm daily