Lisa Östberg, Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator
Last week, I had one of the best days of my life: after many years of working as a volunteer and now for Defenders as its Florida coexistence coordinator, I had the opportunity to witness a Florida panther being released into the wild!
The panther was one of a pair of siblings orphaned back in 2011 when their mother was killed. They were taken to a special rehabilitation facility where they were allowed to grow to young adulthood with very little exposure to humans, and were taught to hunt and fend for themselves. The female of the pair was successfully released into the Picayune Strand State Forest a few weeks ago, and today the male was released into a very remote part of southwest Palm Beach County within the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area.
I have never definitively seen a panther in the wild, although I’ve been the first on site at one roadkill and witnessed the “cleanup” at another. Today’s experience was a world away – away from that sadness, away from roads, away from people. The young panther was released on public preserve lands rife with prey like deer and hogs, which should provide this young male with lots of food as he learns to make his way in the wild.
The release itself was over in almost a heartbeat: his crate was opened and for a few seconds we all waited in crazy suspense while he stayed tucked inside. But then, in an instant, he peeked out, looked to one side and then ran like crazy into the wind, and within a few seconds turned off the dirt road and into the woods.
Quite simply, the experience was magical: seeing the hope on everyone’s face as this young male headed out to make his future in the wild was really special, and I know we all hope that he, and Florida panthers in general, can continue to survive and thrive in the wild.