A week-old Florida panther kitten was found in mid-January and saved from near death, authorities say. The baby panther was found near Florida’s Alligator Alley on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, in a den labelled FP195. He had a low body temperature and was dehydrated, when biologists conducting research found him coiled into a ball. Spokesperson Carli Segelson of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife commission said they had held off on announcing his discovery until they were sure he would survive. That is good news for the baby panther, who now weighs over four pounds after being fed with Esbilac powdered milk, which he drinks from a bottle.
When he was first found, the kitten was taken to the Naples Animal Specialty Hospital for emergency care. Once pronounced stable enough to travel, the panther was brought to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for long-term rehab. While there he will be hand fed for several weeks on the milk powder, and when he is able to eat meat, he will be weaned from the bottle just like a human infant. The panther kitten will be saved the prying eyes of Florida tourists and onlookers as he will not be put on display, but will remain at the zoo only long enough to get well. As he was not raised by his mother and taught how to survive in the wild, the eventual goal is for the young cat to be placed permanently at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. A veterinarian for the FWC, Dr. Mark Cunningham, stressed that the committee wants to give any young panther the chance to go back into the wild, but that this would not be possible in this case as it is clear the kitten would have died without human intervention.
Panthers are a subspecies of the cougar, highly related to mountain lions. Their DNA is so similar to their cousins across the continent that they have recently been removed as being a subcategory, but for purposes of conservation Florida panthers are still referred to by their Latin subspecies name: Puma concolor coryi. This cat in particular has long been one of the most endangered species in the world. In 1958, hunting the Florida panther was made illegal, but this did not seem to make great strides in increasing the kitten’s forebears. Panthers, despite preconceived ideas of them, are very shy, solitary animals. According to the website floridapanthernet, no panther has ever attacked a human. Their prey is small animals such as mice, hares and waterfowl, and larger animals such as deer, wild boar and even, on occasion, alligator. The latter is actually itself a hunter of the panther, who has been susceptible to decreasing numbers in part because of being the alligator’s prey. Other factors in their diminished numbers have been human encroachment, not enough genetic variety due to their low numbers making extensive interbreeding necessary, and the fact that the land they live on is interrupted or “cut” by roads and highways. Male panthers are not so afraid to cross highways and larger roads as females are. For this reason, many panthers who die from being hit by cars are male, while the females are separated from many surviving males by roads. Territory issues make helping panthers complex.
It is estimated that about 100-160 panthers are left in Florida’s wilds, not including kittens like the one recently saved. This number is low, but is a great improvement from a time during the 1970s when it was estimated that there were only about 20 left. These panthers occupy only about 5% of the territory that they historically used to. Authorities are hopeful about the well-being of the kitten just saved, that he will contribute to the slowly growing Florida panther population.
By Julie Mahfood