By Jeremy Cox
Monday, December 25, 2006
Editor’s note: Through the end of the year, the Daily News will update some of the stories that were in the news during the past year.
He is the Florida panther that almost single-handedly (single-pawedly?) kept his species from disappearing by fathering at least 30 kittens over five years.
No wonder he earned the nickname “Don Juan.”
Now, more than 10 months after his capture and removal from the wilderness in eastern Collier County, the big cat is “doing fine” and “in good health,” his caretakers say.
The 11-year-old panther resides in a small enclosure surrounded by a chain-link fence in an area out of public view at Tampa Bay Busch Gardens. The enclosure is connected to a larger, concrete-covered area where the cat likes to roam at night.
“He’s doing fine. There’s really no change. He’s in good health,” said Aimee Jeansonne Becka, a Busch Gardens spokeswoman.
Although panthers and other cougar subspecies tend to acclimate well to captivity, biologists worried whether Don Juan would adjust to his new surroundings.
In the wild, his territory spanned 617 square miles, mostly in Big Cypress National Preserve. The dominant male prowled between Interstate 75 and the Ten Thousand Islands and as far west as State Road 29 and east to the Miami-Dade County line.
“Within a pretty short while, he adjusted pretty well,” said Mark Cunningham, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission veterinarian who oversaw the cat’s capture.
Don Juan sealed his fate after he attacked several pets and livestock in Copeland and Ochopee in southern Collier County earlier this year. Fearing the panther would strike again, officials with the National Park Service and state Fish and Wildlife decided Feb. 16 to capture the cat.
It was the first time biologists had ever decided to remove a panther from the wild because of bad behavior.
Don Juan, known as Florida panther 79, is a symbol of the successes and drawbacks of the effort to boost the panther’s population.
In the mid-1990s, when there were fewer than 30 panthers left, biologists introduced eight female Texas cougars into South Florida to restore the health of the panther gene pool. For years, scientists had been troubled with genetic problems such as kinked tails and males born without testicles.
Born in September 1995, Don Juan was the offspring of one of the female cougars and an unknown male panther, according to state Fish and Wildlife records.
Between February 1999 and July 2004, he fathered 30 cats with seven different female panthers. With few options for a partner, he mated with one of his female offspring twice and another of his female offspring once.
There now are between 70 and 100 panthers living in Southwest Florida, scientists estimate.
After attacking a turkey at an Ochopee petting zoo earlier this year, biologists decided to check on Don Juan’s health. After tranquilizing the cat and performing a quick physical, the biologists agreed to relocate the panther to Raccoon Point, an area on the eastern edge of his territory.
Within a few days, he returned to his marauding ways. After Don Juan killed a hog in Copeland, a team of biologists and veterinarians corralled him again just north of the small town along Jane’s Scenic Drive.
This time, it was for good. Don Juan became one of eight Florida panthers in captivity across the state.
Don Juan’s encounters with humans produced half of the six reported panther incidents this year — the most on record. Wildlife officials were so concerned with the sudden outburst that they convened a meeting with residents a few weeks ago to give them tips on how to live safely around panthers.
Deborah Jansen, a biologist at the Big Cypress preserve who monitored Don Juan’s actions for years, paid the big cat a visit in November.
“It went from a large home range to what he has now,” she said, “but at least he’s not fighting his captivity.”