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Three Orphaned Panthers Return Home For Another Chance At Survival


August 22, 2003

FWC Panther Section Leader Darrell Land: 239-643-4220
Refuge Manager Layne Hamilton, Florida Panther NWR: 239-353-8442, Ext. 227
Jim Huffstodt,
FWC, 561-625-5122
Tom MacKenzie
, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 404/679-7291

NAPLES—Three young panthers, orphaned as kittens approximately eight-months ago when adult male panthers killed their mothers, were released back into the wilds of southwest Florida just before sunset Wednesday, August 20.

The releases were conducted by a team of wildlife biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and White Oak Conservation Center.

Two panther siblings were released on their former range located within the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Collier County, according to USFWS Panther Biologist Larry Richardson.

A third young panther was released in her mother’s former home range on the Big Cypress Mitigation Bank lands in nearby Hendry County, according to FWC Panther Section Leader Darrell Land.

“Since their capture, the panthers had been kept at the White Oak Conservation Center near Jacksonville,” Land said. “They spent the time in a five-acre wild enclosure with minimal human contact. They were also provided live prey to hone hunting skills normally learned from the mother.”

“White Oak is a private conservation center that has been a valuable partner with FWC and the USFWS in all phases of Florida panther recovery,” Land said. “This is a coordinated and comprehensive approach to panther conservation with state and federal agencies working in tandem with the private sector.”

This story began when seven-month old male and female siblings were orphaned when their mother was killed in the Florida Panther NWR by an adult male panther, according to Land.

“The mother had been captured earlier and equipped with a radio-transmitting device, which allowed us to track her movements,” he said. “After her death a team of panther biologists went to the site and placed “camera traps” nearby to document if her kittens survived.

“These motion-activated cameras revealed that the kittens were alive and periodically returning to the site,” he said. “We tracked down the kittens and captured them on October 22, 2002. The goal was to eventually return them to the wild when their age, size and hunting skills promised a better chance of survival.”

The third kitten was six-months-old when captured on January 20, 2003, after her mother had been killed by an adult male panther on private land in Hendry County. She was also taken to White Oak to await eventual release back into the wild.

Land said that dominant male panthers periodically kill other panthers found within their territory. He described the behavior as natural and not a serious impediment to species survival.

The odds that the released female panthers will survive and reproduce are excellent, Land said. The male faces tougher odds mainly due to aggression from older and larger males. Land said the male survival success rate is about 40 percent.

“All three cats are equipped with radio collars and will be tracked at least three times a week using an aircraft equipped for that purpose,” he said. “These juvenile cats weigh from 60 to 80 pounds. The siblings are approximately 16-months-old, other around 14 months old.”

The Florida Panther NWR consists of 26,400 acres located 20 miles east of Naples along Interstate 75 and State Route 29--“right in the heart of their south Florida domain”, said Refuge Manager Layne Hamilton. The refuge was established in 1989 and is one of 535 in the United States managed by the USFWS.

The Refuge is a key habitat component vital to the continued survival of the “world’s most endangered mammal”, Hamilton said. Estimates indicate that from two to 12 panthers reside within the refuge depending on the time of year.

Hamilton also noted that the Refuge was home to nine of the 30 panther kittens born in the state during the year of 2002. Biologists estimate the current statewide Florida Panther population to be around 75 adult animals—almost double earlier estimates.

“The Florida panther requires vast tracts of wilderness to roam, and its decline is due primarily to loss of habitat,” Hamilton said. “The Refuge is also home to a myriad of plants and animals, including the endangered wood stork, the Florida black bear, Big Cypress fox squirrel and rare orchids.”

“The Refuge staff is proud to be part of this latest promising effort to assist in the ongoing Florida Panther recovery program,” she said.

The other release site, the Big Cypress Mitigation Bank, consists of a 2,600- acre private citrus farm now planted with 500,000 native wetland tree species. This restored natural area has been designated “Priority One Panther Habitat” by both state and federal conservation agencies.

Big Cypress Mitigation Bank is permitted by the South Florida Water Management District and the U. S. Corps of Engineers, and administered by Executive Director Les D. Alderman, Jr. The cooperating landowners are David Clark and Michael Rosen.

Alderman said the Big Cypress Mitigation Bank is an important source of fresh water for wilderness areas throughout Collier County, significant areas of Lee and Hendry counties, and a small portion of extreme northwest Monroe County.

He said the site is frequented by many species including the endangered wood stork, Everglades Snail Kite and the bald eagle. Other inhabitants include Florida black bear, sandhill cranes, alligators and Big Cypress fox squirrel.

Citizens interested in helping the Florida Panther recovery effort may donate funds to The Wildlife Foundation of Florida (WFF), attention “Florida Panther Fund,” Post Office Box 1010, Tallahassee, FL 32302. The WFF is a non-profit organization; donations are tax-deductible.

Florida Panther Fund monies are used for the care of injured or orphaned panthers and other related conservation needs, according to the FWC.

Digital photos: Available on request at

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