Martin E. Comas – Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 15, 2007
EUSTIS — When visitors walk into the Trout Lake Nature Center, they’ll find a Florida panther staring at them.
Named Joker, the big cat is no longer alive; it was stuffed and mounted soon after it died last year. But Lavon Silvernell hopes it will spark a curiosity with visitors, especially children, about the endangered animal.
“Seeing it up close will help people understand that these animals are really magnificent creatures,” said Silvernell, a naturist with Trout Lake Nature Center.
Joker was donated to the nature center this month by Uncle Donald’s Farm in Lady Lake, where the cat had lived for more than a dozen years before he became ill and was euthanized last June.
On Saturday, almost 100 people attended a presentation about Florida panthers at the nature center, where Joker was unveiled.
Roughly 80 to 100 Florida panthers remain in the wild today. Between 10 and 20 of the cats are killed every year by disease or cars, or in fights.
The cats are also finding fewer places to roam because much of the state’s wild land is rapidly being taken over by suburbs. That may eventually doom the species. Each male cat typically wanders up to 200 miles.
“Over time, its special places — its habitats — have disappeared,” said Bill Hammond, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, who led Saturday’s presentation.
Because most people spend only 5 percent of their day outdoors, there is a misperception that forests, swamps and wild lands are dangerous places, according to Hammond.
Florida panthers are mostly fearful toward humans, and encountering one in the wild is extraordinarily rare.
“Society has changed. We’re not a society anymore that spends a lot of time outdoors,” he said. “We have taking going outdoors out of our lives.”
Joker may help change people’s minds, Hammond said.
“He will give people knowledge,” he said.
Silvernell agreed. Many of the nature center’s visitors are from school field trips, snowbirds and residents bringing in their visiting relatives.
“He is not an artifact. He is a tool,” she said. “He will give us an opportunity to tell people about the Florida panther.”
Martin E. Comas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-742-5927.
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