Lisa Östberg, Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator
Back in April, it was a great joy to write about the release of a young male Florida panther into the wild. The panther was one of a pair of siblings that was orphaned back in 2011 when their mother was killed. Both cats 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 in the wild.
Since their releases (the female was released in southwest Florida in late January, the male in southeast Florida in early April), both cats have been successfully moving about the south Florida landscape. We know this because of the radio collars they each sport: three days a week, members of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission‘s panther team take flight to locate them and each of the other 30 or so cats that have these special radio telemetry collars. This allows the team to monitor how panthers move about and spot irregularities in their movements, which can indicate both potential problems and potential successes for each monitored panther.
My news today is not about the male panther, but about his sister, known these days as FP219. Since her release in late January, she’s made her way from the Picayune Strand State Forest into the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park located to the east. Until late May, she’d been using lots of territory and moving freely, but near the end of the month her range became restricted and she stayed within points that were only about a mile apart. Biologists were curious: she wasn’t displaying normal denning behavior, but she certainly wasn’t moving as freely as she had since her release.
So two of the FWC biologists took to the ground in the Fakahatchee in an attempt to figure out what was going on with FP219. They were looking for her, or for evidence she’d created a den in the area. At first, they found a couple places where it was clear she had rested, but no evidence of a den. The area in which they were looking was very wet, with only small patches of dry ground and not much ground vegetation – much wetter areas than a panther would normally choose for denning. The area in which she’d been moving about was certainly not optimal for bearing and raising kittens. Nonetheless, they kept looking, and then they heard something: not the sounds of an adult panther, but the call of a kitten wanting its mother!
Soon after, on a tiny patch of relatively “high” land (about the size of a small car) containing just a few wax myrtle shrubs, biologists located a beautiful, apparently healthy panther kitten nestled between the myrtle stems. She was given a full health exam, vaccinations, etc. and had a transponder chip inserted between her shoulder blades: this will allow her to be identified if she is ever captured or otherwise encountered again by biologists. The kitten, now known as K398 (she is the 398th kitten handled by biologists since they began studying panthers!) was then left safely where she’d been found, and the biologists continued looking for evidence of a clear den site or other kittens. None were found.
Today, FP219 is just 25 months old: a young mother indeed, but a beacon of hope for the future of Florida panthers. She has survived being orphaned at a very young age, growing into young adulthood in captivity while being taught how to survive in the wild, and then being released into a land she’d never passed through as a tiny kitten when her mother was still alive. Only about three weeks after being released, she met another panther and became pregnant with this precious kitten. She is a real example of the success of rescue and rehabilitation programs for injured or orphaned panthers and how important it is for us to protect and preserve Florida panthers, because each and every one of them contributes to the future of this beautiful endangered species.