A Love Affair With Panthers, for the Moment
By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: January 4, 2010
As David Onorato of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission carefully opened the giant refrigerator where the bodies were kept, I couldn’t help myself. My heart raced. My muscles tensed. Every cheesy freezer horror scene from the movies and “The Sopranos” flitted through my mind, and I almost covered my eyes but knew how ridiculous that would be.
Yet when the partly frozen female panther was finally laid out on a metal table, the sight was not scary or grisly. It was pure, plain sadness. The vultures may have pecked out her eyes and begun rummaging around beneath her tail, but still the 4-year-old panther was an 80-pound muscular masterpiece, her canines as thick and polished as coffee cup handles, her tawny fur still softly bristly to the touch.
The carcass had been recovered from the side of the road a day earlier, another case of big cat meets bigger motorized vehicle in a year that was full of them: 17 endangered Florida panthers were killed by cars and trucks in 2009, the valedictory victim a 3-month-old kitten, as young panthers are called, found on New Year’s Eve. Add in the seven other panthers that were killed by gunshot, one another or “causes unknown,” and the mortality rate seems insupportably high for a wild population estimated at maybe 110 breeding adults.
Yet if there is any bright note to be extracted from the death ledgers, it’s that the wild panthers slinking in and around the Everglades — the sole surviving tribe of Puma concolor east of the Mississippi — are apparently breeding avidly enough to replace their fallen numbers. The traffic fatalities are terrible, said Dr. Onorato, but “we must remember there’s reproduction going on, some of which we don’t document.”
Call them panthers, pumas, cougars or mountain lions, but cats they remain, and cats have a defiantly syncopated way of coming back again and again. As Dr. Onorato and other researchers see it, the tale of the Florida panther is twitchier and more sinuous than its long tail, a continuing saga of highs and lows, hopes and oh nos.
On the one hand, the population in South Florida is stable and possibly even growing by small increments. On the other, the animal is nowhere near meeting the standards necessary for removal from the endangered species list — the existence of three distinct populations of at least 240 adults each, somewhere in the southeastern United States. Moreover, scientists recognize that if economic revival brings fresh rounds of development that intrude into panther habitat, even the extant Florida population could once again suffer.
Floridians love their panthers. At the behest of enthusiastic students, the panther was designated the official state animal in 1982. Of all the specialized license plates in Florida, the panther plate is among the most popular, bringing in more than $1 million a year. “All of our research and management, our budget, equipment — everything — is supported by purchases of these cat tags,” said Dr. Onorato, one of five state researchers devoted entirely to studying the biology and conservation of the panther.
Some biologists worry that at least part of the infatuation is predicated on the Florida panther’s impeccable record. In contrast with mountain lions in California and other Western states, which have been known to ambush, kill and partly consume the occasional jogger or hiker, there are no recorded cases of a Florida panther’s attacking a human being.
Some have suggested that the distinction in how the two cougar populations comport themselves around people stems from slight regional discrepancies in anatomy and leg length. Others have proposed that the Western puma is comparatively more accustomed to hunting large animals and thus sees Homo sapiens as acceptable pickings.
Yet scientists point out that DNA analysis has revealed very little genetic difference between the Eastern and Western panther populations, which means there is no reason to believe the Florida panther is a congenital puddy tat. Certainly the animals can be ruthless with one another. Among panthers living in prime areas away from roads, said Dr. Onorato, “the No. 1 cause of death is intraspecific aggression” — one panther killing another. Some authorities suspect it is only a matter of time and sustained human encroachment before a Florida panther pounces on a Florida land speculator.
Devotees yearn to see panthers in the wild, but very few ever do. The cats are quiet, reclusive, solitary and built to blend in. On a twilight foray into known panther territory under the guidance of a naturalist, Marcy Wagner, we saw dozens of alligators with their madcap zigzagging heat-control grins, and anhingas looking like caped pterodactyl Draculas as they dried out their wings, and storks, hawks, egrets, herons and orchids worthy of being poached. We spotted fresh panther tracks in the swamp mud and even fresher panther scat, and at one point Ms. Wagner declared there was a distinct smell of “wet cat,” but whether that smell was a wading cougar, well, I have no proof of that.
Early Americans had a much easier time puma sighting, for the cats abounded across the continent. For generations the cats were shot as vermin and their hunting grounds transformed into cattle pastures, farmland or conference centers. By the late 1980s, the Florida panther population hit its nadir of about 20. “It was a recipe for entering the vortex of extinction,” Dr. Onorato said.
But with the help of the Endangered Species Act and other legislation, and with the introduction of a few Texas pumas into the area to counter the threat of so-called inbreeding depression, the Florida panther was yanked back from the vortical brink.
The panthers did their part, too, thanks to a reproductive schedule vaguely reminiscent of an unspayed house cat. Panthers can breed year round, their gestation period is 90 days, compared with a domestic cat’s 67, their average litter size of 2.5 kittens is just slightly below that of a house cat, and they nurse their young for a pet-length span of about eight weeks.
Unlike the great cats, panthers lack the vocal cords to roar, but they can purr. Among the panther’s favorite meals is an invasive species — the feral hog, brought to this continent by the Spaniards in the 16th century — but it will also eat white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons, small alligators and pet cats on the loose.
Pumas need lots of space. Females roam over a home range of about 80 square miles, while males patrol ranges as big as 250 square miles. For anyone driving through Florida cat country, the law demands you take it slow. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a panther — one that still has the eyes to see you.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org
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