Last May was not a particularly good month for a young female Florida panther near Naples, Florida. On May 12, a resident of the Golden Gate Estates area of town called authorities to report having seen a limping panther on his property. Biologists from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) were called to the home the following morning because the panther had not left the area and was not moving – a sure sign she was injured and in distress. When biologists located the panther, she was sheltered in the remains of a fallen cypress tree among branches and vines, unable to move. Biologists assessed the situation and carefully approached the panther, anesthetizing her as she lay resting so they could examine her and determine the extent of her injuries.
At the site, a veterinarian working with the Commission determined that at the very least, the cat had a badly injured right rear leg and other potentially dangerous wounds. After transporting her to a local emergency veterinary practice, doctors there determined that the panther had likely been hit by a vehicle and was not only suffering from a broken right femur, but also had rib fractures and bruises around her lungs. She was given immediate emergency surgery to repair the injury to her femur and once stable, was transported to White Oak Conservation Center in north Florida for recovery, with hopes that she would one day be returned to the wild.
At the time she was brought to the rehab facility, the 57-pound female was fitted with a radio collar, which would give FWC important data about her movements in the wild. Radio-tracking data have been used to determine characteristics of habitat used by panthers and to document range expansion. They also help biologists locate dens and monitor kittens. When a panther hasn’t moved for a while the collar emits a signal that alerts biologists that the cat may be injured or dead, so that biologists can help the animal or determine cause of death. FWC began collaring panthers in 1981, and data from radio-telemetry studies have been vital in identifying important habitat areas and travel corridors to guide land protection decisions. They can also help pinpoint dangerous road segments in need of reduced nighttime speed limits and wildlife underpasses.
The young panther was also given the identity ‘FP224’, meaning she was the 224th Florida panther to be under ongoing study and monitoring by the FWC. FP224 was estimated to be 8 to 9 months old and was otherwise in good health, but probably not old enough to be on her own. It was planned that she would remain in rehabilitation for several months so she could heal and grow to an age and size where she would be able to survive on her own in the wild.
For the next 9 months, FP224 remained in rehabilitation, growing into a healthy sub-adult panther, and in February 2014 plans were begun to release her back into the wild. Through much work on the part of FWC, White Oak and others, an initial date of March 5 was planned for her release. But not surprisingly, just like most cats, FP224 had plans of her own and avoided being removed from her rehabilitation area for several days, keeping journalists, dignitaries and agency invitees hoping to attend the release on a day-to-day roller coaster ride of anticipation.
Finally, on the morning of March 10, we all received word that the release was on! By late morning we’d been sent instructions on how to find the release site, located on private lands just north of the Big Cypress National Preserve and west of the Seminole Indian Reservation, or in the minds of your average south Florida resident, “in the middle of nowhere.” However, in the minds of those of us who are passionate about the future of our precious wildlife, the release site might as well have been the middle of heaven.
So, on a beautiful late winter afternoon under a crystal-clear and brilliant blue sky, we all stood in a cow pasture surrounded by cypress and pine forests waiting for the arrival of FP224. We watched in awe as a white van pulled into an adjacent field and the crate holding FP224 was placed on the ground with the door facing the woods. In attendance were television and newspaper reporters from as far away as Key West, Naples and Miami, FWC Commissioner ‘Alligator Ron’ Bergeron, representatives of the FWC, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Defenders of Wildlife.
So again, I had the opportunity to witness one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring events of my life. As we all watched, the hatch to FP224’s crate was lifted and she opened her mouth and hissed, clearly uncertain of what was happening. But in the next moments, her eyes adjusted to the light, she moved closer to the doorway of her crate, peeked out, and then made a move out of her crate to the left, where she immediately saw people… so she turned back in the direction her crate had been aimed at in the first place and promptly bounded back into the wild lands of south Florida. Sporting a bright pink and green radio collar and brightly colored ear tags (both of which will allow biologists to easily identify her in images from wildlife cameras) she was truly a sight to behold.
The whole experience of her actual release lasted less than one minute from the moment her crate was opened until she disappeared into the woods. She actually stayed in the crate until 40 seconds had passed, which means her dash into freedom lasted roughly 15 seconds for those of us watching. But for her, those 15 seconds will hopefully lead to a long life, lots of healthy kittens, and a better future for Florida panthers in the wild, where they belong.
Lisa Östberg, Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator