Curiosity almost killed the two-year-old Florida panther roaming in rural Collier County. It was 2014, and experts believe the big cat sauntered towards a human who fired a shotgun at short range, destroying his right eye, damaging the left and blinding him altogether. When the panther scampered away, he was shot again in the rear.
Two-year-old Florida panthers should weigh between 100 and 110 pounds, but when this cat was found splayed along Immokalee Road he was only 64, not just severely emaciated but dehydrated too. Ultimately, he survived his injuries, but after biologists treated him and gave him a clean bill of health, they agreed the blind panther wouldn’t last long in the wild.
With only one hazy sapphire eye, thick tawny fur and a serene demeanor, the panther was taken in by the Naples Zoo and named Uno, becoming the first panther to go through rehabilitation in South Florida. He had his favorite keepers, and enjoyed playing with coconuts and lounging under palms. He more than doubled his weight.
“Uno was a super laidback cat, super mellow and really just relaxed about everything,” recalls Liz Harmon, animal programs director at Naples Zoo. “He was really special and made a lasting connection with our guests. He was a unique-looking individual with one eye that was red and one that was blue.”
When Uno passed away in 2018 (a complication from a pain medication prescribed after eye surgery), there was an outpouring of support and tokens of condolences were displayed in his exhibit. But by then, zoos across the state had their own resident panthers, including Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach zoos. Even Naples Zoo had acquired a baby female panther named Athena in 2017 after she developed pneumonia and was abandoned by her mother.
“She’s very playful and still young – only two-and-a-half years old,” Harmon reports with a laugh. “She’s very curious and wants to know what’s going on with everything.”
Like Uno and Athena, Florida panthers have survived as a subspecies despite seemingly impossible odds. Data suggest that in the mid-1990s, Florida’s panther population may have fallen to as few as 20 animals, and a 1992 study predicted that the Florida panther would be extinct by 2016. And yet, according to the most recent February 2017 report by state and federal agencies, there are between 120 and 230 panthers across the state.
Their elusive quality has given the felines a mythological celebrity. Faced with captive breeding failures, insurmountable genetic defects and dubious science, the Florida panther’s comeback is nothing short of a miracle. But as Florida continues to be one of the fastest growing states in the country and developers convert swamplands into subdivisions and shopping plazas to meet demand, it seems that the story of this endangered subspecies is far from over. The Florida panther is not yet in the clear.
“Panthers are still endangered; 200 isn’t a whole lot,” says Craig Pittman, author and Tampa Bay Times journalist, whose new book is Cat Tale: The Wild Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. “So while the state wildlife commission was bringing back the population, the federal agency was allowing lots of building on panther habitat. Now you have more panthers in a smaller space than ever before.”
From Lords to Target
Today, the Florida panther is the only one of its cousins of pumas, mountain lions and cougars to survive east of the Mississippi River. But until the early 20th century, Puma concolor roamed across North America, from Canada to California to Tennessee to Vermont.
Judging from the feline depiction on artifacts dating back centuries, Native American tribes, including the Calusa, Tequesta and Apalachee, have always revered the tan-colored feline. According to Pittman, the Cherokees considered the panther to be “lord of the forest,” and the Chickasaw as “cat of God.” The tribe now known as the Seminole believe the panther has the ability to heal.
But the settlers arriving in Florida in the 18th and 19th centuries had a wholly different attitude towards the apex predators: they were terrified of them and shot at the mostly skittish nocturnal creatures. By 1832, the state legislature instituted a $5 bounty on them. As more and more people flocked to Florida, panthers retreated south to the Big Cypress swamp and the Everglades. The state didn’t attempt to regulate panther hunting until 1958, but by then no one was entirely sure if there were any panthers left to regulate.
“That level of persecution was enough to keep the numbers low,” says Darrell Land, the Florida Wildlife Commission’s panther team leader who has been working on their recovery for the past 34 years. “Once the numbers got so low, all the cats became closely related and their survival abilities and reproductive abilities were compromised due to poor genetics.”
There wasn’t a confirmed panther sighting until 1973, and it was of a weak, tick-infested female too old to reproduce north of the Caloosahatchee River on the state’s Gulf Coast in an area called Gator Slough. Later that year President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law, which was the first federal protection taken to keep the Florida panther from going extinct. In the early 1980s, schoolchildren from across the state cast their ballots to designate Florida’s state animal: the panther won by a long shot. The move inadvertently strong-armed legislators to fund research that would help ensure the official state animal didn’t go extinct. To this day, state research is funded through the sale of “Protect the Panther” license plates. “I don’t know any other state that raises money for scientific research from the sale of license plates,” Pittman says.
Scientists began collaring the panthers and tracking their movements with radio signals from planes. Even as their numbers dwindled, the option of captive breeding was kept like a break-the-glass fire alarm to prevent extinction – until they realized they were too late. Inbreeding between parents and siblings caused such genetic defects as holes in the heart and heart murmurs, kinked tails and male infertility that wouldn’t even allow this scientific Noah’s Ark experiment.
Everyone seemed to have run out of options. Then at a meeting in northern Florida in 1992, a group of experts met and seriously discussed the concept of “genetic augmentation,” or mating the Florida panther with a close subspecies from the other side of the Mississippi. There was concern that the offspring wouldn’t be considered Florida panthers, and not protected under the Endangered Species Act (meaning anyone could just go up and shoot one). But maintaining a pure bloodline was a moot point if crippling defects then meant the creature stopped existing altogether.
It took two years for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the plan. Eight female Texas cougars were released in March 1995, and seven months later one had already given birth to two kittens free of all the genetic defects. Pittman calls the cougar mating plan a “Hail Mary pass” – one that worked. “Five of the eight females bred with male panthers and produced healthy offspring with no genetic defects,” Pittman says. The cougars did their jobs so well that eventually, their services were no longer required.
“The [Texas cougars] produced a total of 20 offspring and by 2003 we removed the remaining [Texas cougars] from the population to limit the amount of genetic material they contributed to our Florida panther population,” Land says. “Since that time the panther numbers have really rebounded and the cats appear to be stronger and healthier than ever.”
Panther populations rose from about 40 in the ’80s and ’90s to about 60 after the Texas cougars were introduced. By the early 2000s, there were estimated to be as many as 120 panthers across the state, and their collective dietary intake noticeably increased too. Except locals weren’t happy when their cows, calves, goats and even household dogs and cats were preyed on by the nocturnal carnivores.
“Panthers are meat eaters and if there’s something walking around that represents meat that is unprotected, they can and will take advantage of it,” Land says. “They have been known to kill cattle and certainly have visited people’s yards and taken goats, but so far – knock on wood – we haven’t had any attack of any kind by a Florida panther on a person.”
Land says humans are actually the biggest threat to the Florida panther. In 2018, 26 panthers were hit and killed by cars.
“I’ve been working with Florida panthers for 34 years and I’ve seen their increase fivefold,” Land says. “But if we had lost 20 to 30 panthers in a year to roadkill [back then], then we would have wiped out the last remaining panthers.”
Carlton Ward Jr., then just about 8 or 9 years old, was at his family’s ranch in Hardee County in Central Florida when he heard a Florida panther for the first time. He was outside with his uncle and cousin and, though it was almost 35 years ago, can still recall that piercing wail coming from the woods.
“It was a distinct screaming that couldn’t have been anything else,” Ward says. “It was kind of electrifying just knowing that a panther was out there; it made everything that much more exciting to me.”
Years later, the Florida wilderness has become the cornerstone of Ward’s work as a conservation photographer. He has exhibited widely and been featured in National Geographic. But as an eighth-generation Floridian with several cousins who work as full-time cowboys, Ward also understands the struggles of local ranchers and farmers in the 21st century, many of whom have lost land to development as the state welcomes roughly 1,000 new residents a day. “You can just see the orange groves turning to rooftops,” he says. “It’s a very pivotal time for the future of wild Florida because we’ve got conflicting interests between the current trajectory of development and the need for conservation.”
In 2010, Ward founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor Project, which works to create a continuous statewide swath of lands and waters through public and private property that allows animals such as the Florida panther and black bear to roam widely. The second leading cause of panther death is other panthers. Males can be especially territorial, and a single male panther’s home range is up to 200 square miles. Florida might be about 27 percent public lands, but they’re only as good as they are linked.
“That could work for certain species of birds that can fly from one patch to the next but for the panther and other terrestrial wildlife, you have to have connectivity,” Ward says. “Or else you’re just going to seal the panthers into an insufficient amount of habitat in the southern tip of Florida.”
For the past four years, Ward has been trekking thousands of miles through the wildlife corridor from the Everglades to Georgia and the Gulf Coast of Alabama. He is taking the routes that panthers and bears would take. “I’ve seen firsthand that we still have a connected habitat network,” he says.
Since 2006, Ward has been using trap camera and video systems to capture Florida wildlife. Back then, his work focused mostly on the black bear, though he’d still photograph the occasional panther that walked by. But in the last three years and through a network of 20 trap cameras, Ward has been documenting the routes that the endangered felines take with a project titled the “Path of the Panther.” He estimates he has taken more than 500 pictures of panthers in his career, though he only came face-to-face with a panther once when driving near Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
“It just looked at me through my window and I was freaking out,” Ward says. “A few minutes later a little kitten came bobbing out of the palms and they scurried off into the forest.”
Panthers are rebounding in numbers as a species, but currently their breeding populations are only south of the Caloosahatchee River. Experts worry that unless the panther creates multiple breeding colonies, one disease could bring their numbers down drastically. The goal is for panthers to find their way north, creating breeding populations in the northern Everglades spanning from Lake Okeechobee to Orlando, and another north of Interstate 4 to the Panhandle.
“For the panthers to recover and be viable, it needs to be a statewide population,” Ward says. “If your entire breeding population is isolated to one part of the state, something like a disease could push them back closer to extinction.”
Pinched for space and the threat of other territorial males, single male panthers began crossing the Caloosahatchee River in the 1990s. But there hadn’t been a documented female panther north of the Caloosahatchee for more than 40 years. Then in 2015, a state-operated trap camera snapped what they believed to be a photo of the female panther. They weren’t able to confirm until they saw her tracks the following year. Since she was spotted near the state’s Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County, wildlife officials called her Babs.
For years, wildlife officials waited for Babs to find a mate, and then they saw a male panther named Crookshanks (for his curved tail) that was hanging near her habitat. Then in 2017, Babs was spotted on another state-operated trap camera, this time with a pair of spotted kittens trailing behind her.
The photos from the state-operated cameras were legendary, but also admittedly somewhat grainy and out of focus. Ward sought to capture their images on one of his DSLR cameras, which he likens to a “studio in the woods.” But for the camera to take the shot, the animal must first trigger the infrared beam. Ward is meticulous about the angle and composition of the shot. “It could take me two years at a certain location to get the photo I was going for,” he says. “It’s incredibly frustrating and tedious, but you’re showing the Florida panther in a way that the world has never seen before.”
Then, in January 2018, Babs and her kittens crossed Ward’s infrared beam and he got his crisp high-res shot of the spotted panther kittens. They’re the first panthers born north of the Caloosahatchee River, the first right-of-soil citizens in a new frontier for the elusive cat as it continues to endure despite the odds.
“There are some shots that I have taken in the past that have more action,” Ward says. “But this one is the most important to me.”