There’s plenty of alligatorsand pythonsto keep people busy in the wild state of Florida, but under the surface lurks a predator that for my money is the coolest of them all.
Panthers are native to Florida, but when a huge wave of people began moving south in the first few decades of the 20th century, a mix of habitat degradation and hunting began decimating the population of these imposing feline. Researchers at the National Wildlife Foundation estimate that only 20-30 remained in the wild in the 1970s and they were even presumed to be extinct in the 1950’s due to low numbers and their reclusive behaviors. This lead scientists to begin taking major actions to try and rescue the species.
A panther research program was initialed in the early 1980s which began tracking the location and behaviors of the remaining cats, the data allowing teams to submit reforms and laws to state legislatures in hopes of leading the species back to stability. But despite their efforts, the population remained around 20-30 into the 1990s, according to the University of Florida, at which point rescue efforts kicked into high gear.
Almost 300,000 acres of panther habitat were protected, prey management was improved, and underpasses were built under highways to reduce the number of vehicle collisions, but the biggest implementation done by the program was introducing genetic variability to the population. The cats that remained were showing all sorts of deformations like kinked tails and reduced immune function due to consistent inbreeding.
Although genetic restoration was a contentious issue, it was eventually decided that 8 female pumas from Texas would be released into the south Florida wild. Five of those females successfully reproduced, leading to 12 litters and at least 20 new kittens. Eventually, 5 of the Texas pumas died of natural causes and the other three were removed in 2003 to reduce the amount of puma genes in the population.
The experiment was extremely successful and today around 200 Florida panthers roam freely throughout the southern parts of the state. They’re not out of the woods yet as car crashes and continued habitat destruction still plague the cats, but undoubtedly they are in a much better place than they used to be.
Of course, the downside of this is an increased number of run ins with humans. I lived in Florida for 4 years and loved to hear that the population was on the rebound, but I’d be lying if I didn’t think about the problems high numbers of large, apex predators running around can cause. We’ve seen what they can do to people’s petsand no one wants to think about what could happen to children playing outside.
Another example of panthers around people is shown in this video from a few years ago. The family was worried because 2 of their goats had gone missing recently and one evening they saw the culprit in broad daylight.
“This was taken during evening hours right where the kids play!”
A huge, and I mean huge, panther was running around their backyard, right where their children play, and seemed to get itself trapped inside a fence. But that didn’t last for long as the panther showed off incredible athleticism by effortlessly leaping over the gate before scampering away into the jungle to hide.
For a cat that can weigh 150 pounds, it’s terrifying to see them leap over 5 feet in the air without breaking stride.
I’m all for panthers coming back to Florida, but those in the area need to be aware of the dangers and take precautions for their animals, children, and themselves.