Florida damage caused by escaped "pet" black panther?

Residents of Kings Gate on Kings Highway think it could be a black panther. Officials say it’s more likely a cougar.

PORT CHARLOTTE — When Carol-Ann Thorn awoke to find the gutter torn off her home and thrown across the walkway beside her house, she didn’t know what to think.

Some of her neighbors in Kings Gate had seen the culprit and his previous damage, describing the vandal as nearly 5 feet tall, weighing 150 pounds.

Thorn and her neighbors think it could be a black panther prowling the area, but officials said the animal with an apparent appetite for destruction is likely something more common, like a cougar.

Regardless, management at Kings Gate said Monday they’re taking the situation seriously.

“We don’t know if we’ve got a panther on the property,” said Beverly Malouin, with marketing and sales at Kings Gate. “Some of the residents have pieces of their gutter where something chased a squirrel or something into the gutter and bit into it.”

Management contacted an animal trapper Monday to assess the situation at the property on Kings Highway in Port Charlotte. Malouin said she expects a trap to be set up with rabbit meat soon, hopefully to find out exactly what kind of animal the culprit is.

Thorn said she contacted management last Wednesday after she found the gutter, which cost her $75 to replace. She said the neighborhood then put her name on a list of residents who have had similar problems.

“It’s just a little bit frightening,” Thorn said. “I’m not the only one if they’re putting me on a list.”

She said the gutters are attacked after a small animal runs into one for refuge.

“I talked to a couple of neighbors and they said they have seen tiny bunnies going up the gutters to get away from whatever they were getting away from,” she said.

Though he said he wouldn’t rule out anything, Lt. Brian Jones with Charlotte County Animal Control said the likelihood of a black panther causing damage in a neighborhood is slim. Black panthers are not native to Florida. More often, he said, people mistakenly think what they see is a Florida panther, which is also rare.

“Usually, 99.9 percent of the time when we get a call for a Florida panther, it is a bobcat,” Jones said.

He said he’s been working for the animal field for about 14 years, and he only saw a Florida panther once a decade ago near Tuckers Grade “for about 5 seconds.”

Even if Thorn’s pest is a cougar, Jones said it’s uncommon for such animals to cause damage to homes or property.

“I’ve never heard of bobcats doing damage to property, but, then again, they’re animals,” he said.

If the culprit really is a black panther, Jones said it would likely be someone’s pet. He said it’s surprising how many local people have permits for interesting pets, including a Punta Gorda resident who keeps a llama in his backyard.

“People have strange pets,” he said. “You’d be surprised what lives amongst us. Maybe it’s a black panther that somebody had and it got loose. It’s not likely, but it’s theoretically possible.”

You can e-mail Neil Hughes at nhughes@sun-herald.com.

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