The Florida panther is widely recognized as Florida’s own official state animal, and is a member of a familiar wild cat species: the cougar. Originally one of the most prevalent and feared mammals in southeastern Florida, the Florida panther has had a long history of dealing with human encroachment – particularly through the destruction of their habitat and the hunting of their species.
As a result, the Florida panther is now one of the planet’s most endangered species, with less than 100 panthers living in the wild. This is not a good outcome, as the Florida panther is an umbrella species: because its required habitat is large, many plants and other animals benefit from the Florida panther’s presence—and without a healthy amount of these panthers, those plants and other animals are less likely to survive themselves. Because of this, efforts have been made to try and increase the number of living Florida panthers, such as the foundation of controlled breeding environments which are currently taking care of an estimated 100-180 panthers in total.
Two Centuries of Hardship
The origin of the Florida panther’s current situation goes back at least 200 years. As a member of the cougar family (also called Puma concolor, a species which lives primarily in all of North and South America), the Florida panther was hunted very often by humankind between the 1800s and early 1900s. As carnivores, the species was seen as a threat to humans, human livestock, and game animals, and as a result, bounties were placed on the entire panther species throughout the U. S. by 1832. Out of all of the cougar subspecies that were hunted in the southeastern U.S., Florida panthers suffered the most; because of an increased level of human encroachment in their habitats, the subspecies became nearly extinct by the 1950s and was added to the list of U.S. endangered species in 1973.
Because of the ever-dwindling number of living Florida panthers today, the lifespan of the species has been decreasing. Normally, wild Florida panthers tend to live an estimated twelve years in the wild; however, the small population size makes them highly susceptible to disease and genetic disorders. This is primarily because their main source of food, the white-tailed deer, has mercury in its body.
Most prominently, however, the Florida panther is threatened by motor vehicles. Based on a series of data collected since 2008 by floridapanthernet.org, nearly 150 wild Florida panthers have died, and over 85 percent of those panthers were killed by being struck by a motor vehicle. So far this year (2014), 17 wild Florida panthers have been killed, and exactly 75 percent of those panthers were killed by a motor vehicle. The rest of these deaths are caused by shootings—despite the fact that hunting/shooting Florida panthers is illegal—and diseases, among other things. With this information in mind, it is no wonder why there is currently a strong desire to help keep the small Florida panther population alive. This is done primarily by rescuing as many Florida panthers from the wild as possible.
Delivering Florida Panthers to Safety
One of the ways in which Florida panthers are lured to the safety of controlled environments is a rather creative one: by using “Calvin Klein Obsession for Men,” a cologne product by Calvin Klein Inc. which contains a chemical scent that is very alluring to various subspecies of cougar. This type of “bait” has also been used to gather visual data via motion-sensing cameras in the natural habitats of the Florida panther, an important aspect of monitoring the health and status of the subspecies.
Another way in which the population of Florida panthers is cared for is through a monitoring system known as Panther Pulse. This system, founded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), allows for most of the known Florida panther population to be monitored by electronic radio collars. Along with the visual data of the motion-sensing cameras, these devices make it easier to record data on births, deaths, and various other information about Florida panthers. These collars are usually given to panthers once they make it to one of the many controlled environments which are designed to support the life of Florida panthers.
The radio-collared Florida panthers are monitored three times a week every year, and data is collected from the radio-collars via scheduled flights from aircrafts. In addition to the amount of births and deaths within a given time frame, the information that the aircrafts receive from the collars is highly vital to keeping the Florida panthers alive. The data collected—used to help with recovery, reproduction, and disease control and prevention—is sent to various groups in charge of caring for controlled Florida panther populations, including the FWC and the Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP). These groups are also in charge of sending the aircrafts which collect the data.
Refuges and New Homes
Organizations like the BCNP and FWC have all teamed up to provide assistance to the declining Florida panther population – a difficult task considering the limited amount of suitable space for a Florida panther to live in as well as its small population size and susceptibility to sicknesses. However, the challenge isn’t stopping these organizations from attempting to turn around the decline; for instance, the FWC created a refuge system specifically for the Florida panther subspecies called the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge – one of the 58 other refuges established under the Endangered Species Act. This refuge alone has been cited as the most important refuge for Florida panthers in recent years because of its high number of female panthers and its high healthy birth rate. It is located in Naples, Florida.
The mission of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is: “To conserve and manage lands and waters in concert with other agency efforts within the Big Cypress Watershed, primarily for the Florida Panther, other endangered and threatened species, natural diversity, and cultural resources for the benefit of the American people.”
According to bigcatrescue.org, a website dedicated to helping preserve the lives of various cat species including the Florida panther, any plan that focuses on saving the Florida panther requires three points of action. These include the provision of additional habitats, the creation of programs to help breed panthers, and the exploration of cross-breeding with closely related subspecies (such as the Texas cougar) as a way to increase lifespan by creating healthier panthers.
Recent developments in studies of the Florida panther support the idea that these points of action are the only things standing between the revival of the panther and its extinction. Additionally, through the efforts of organizations like the BCNP and FWC, research, breeding, and public education have all helped to bring knowledge of the Florida panther’s situation to a broader group of people.
Ordinary Citizens Can Help, Too!
So what exactly can the average person do to help with these efforts to save the Florida panther? It takes only a short time to speak out and let others know about the Florida panther’s situation—and it takes only a desire to help to support groups and services fighting for the cause. So long as humankind does its best to inform others about the Florida panther and continue to support it, time will ensure that their species has a future. To learn more about Florida panthers, visit http://www.floridapanthernet.org.