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GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — Mark Poole’s morning routine starts before dawn, when he feeds the livestock he keeps on about an acre behind his Golden Gate Estates home.
On Monday morning, it wasn’t just chickens and goats out back.
The 49-year-old roofing contractor found himself staring down an endangered Florida panther growling at him from the other side of a 4-foot tall wire fence, about 20 feet away from him in a dark corner of his back yard on Ninth Street Southwest.
“It was almost as loud as a man could scream,” Poole said, describing the growl that he heard when he came upon the panther as he checked his fence line.
Even more worrisome to Poole, he said, the panther didn’t run away but instead held its ground as it gnawed on what Poole said looked like one his chickens.
Keeping eye contact with the wild cat, Poole slowly backed away for about 100 feet, until he triggered the motion lights on the back of his barn and felt safe enough to turn his back and head for the house.
The encounter caps an upsurge in recent weeks of panthers preying on livestock in the same part of the Estates that was hit by a string of attacks by a female panther with three kittens earlier this summer.
Wildlife officials have classified Poole’s report as an “incident” on the risk scale of human-panther interactions used by the Interagency Florida Panther Response Team comprised of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An “incident” is in the middle range on the scale and is the most serious interaction since 2006, when a panther repeatedly returning to Ochopee to take livestock was labeled a “threat.”
In that case, wildlife officials took the unprecedented step of removing the panther from the wild to live in captivity at a state park. Officials first tried to relocate the panther 20 miles away, but he returned within a matter of days.
In 2004, after Miccosukee Indians complained about panthers too close to their homes in the Big Cypress, the Conservation Commission relocated a young male panther to Hendry County. It was killed in a territorial fight with another panther.
Conservation Commission biologist Mark Lotz said the response team has reviewed Monday’s incident and, so far, determined that it is not necessary to remove the panther from the Estates.
“We feel right now the prudent thing is to keep educating residents about proper livestock husbandry,” Lotz said. “If they do that, they shouldn’t have more problems with panthers.”
Scientists say between 100 and 120 panthers are left, up from fewer than 30 after a genetic restoration project transplanted eight female Texas cougars to South Florida. That project has been declared a success, but the growing panther population is running out of room as development overtakes its habitat.
Removing the panther from the Estates won’t solve the problem with livestock attacks because another panther will move in, Lotz said.
He said the panther does not pose a public safety concern and attributed the growl to natural behavior panthers use to defend its kill or kittens.
A panther took a goat, six chickens and a turkey from Poole’s back yard last weekend, and Monday’s incident occurred at the site where the prey was consumed, Lotz said.
Poole said he’s lost eight goats, six turkeys, and two dozen chickens in the past year.
After Monday’s report, Lotz set up cameras around Poole’s property and caught images of an adult female and two 13-month-old kittens.
Lotz said he suspects it is the same panther family caught on camera earlier this summer in the same part of the Estates.
Five chickens and nine goats were killed between Wilson Boulevard and 21st Street Southwest in the first two weeks of June. The Conservation Commission recorded similar attacks on Stable Way, Jenkins Way, Keri Island Road and 17th Street Southwest as far back as March.
The string of attacks prompted a door-to-door outreach effort in the neighborhood to encourage residents to secure their livestock to avoid panther attacks.
That means, especially at night, putting them in predator-proof enclosures with sturdy walls and a roof, or using electric fencing, according to the Conservation Commission.
Lotz said the attacks stopped soon after but now seem to be back on the rise in the Estates.
The daughter of a family in the Rock Road area reported watching two panthers chase down the family’s pet cat in their front yard Sept. 29, and a goat was taken in the same area in mid-September, Lotz said.
For his part, Poole is taking steps to keep panthers from turning his back yard into a feeding zone.
He’s hooked up a radio to turn on when motion lights go on and is building a fence of barbed wire up to 9 feet high around his property.
“I don’t feel safe right now,” he said.
He said he carries a shotgun when he goes out to check on his animals and doesn’t let his nieces and nephews out back unless he’s with them.
Poole said he supports panther conservation, just not in his back yard.
“Catch the cat, get the cat and put it out in the boondocks where it belongs,” he said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.