Disappearing Florida – the Florida Panther

Florida Panther - the Sentinel of the Swamp

Florida Panther – the Sentinel of the Swamp

In April 2010, we published a blog titled “Did the wrong Cat take over the swamp?“ Our story was about the destructive, encroaching pressures put on the Everglades by urban growth, resulting not only in the loss of some of Florida’s most pristine wilderness, but also of the habitat of the Florida Panther. We wrote:

The Panther is a tawny brown cat, sleek, muscular – a well-coordinated but solitary creature, 5-8 feet long, 2-3 feet in height at the shoulder, weighing 120 to 130 pounds at maturity. The Panther is a predator, feeding primarily on white-tailed deer, wild-hogs, raccoons, armadillo and birds. The Panther, particularly the male, requires a large territory for its food supply. Males have been known to roam over a range of 200 square miles. The Florida Panther once called most of the Southeastern United States its home. But in recent times, its breeding population has been relegated to South Florida, down-sized out of its larger, natural habitat by our expanding residential and commercial development. The Florida Panther is proudly displayed on license plates as the state animal for Florida. It is also the leader among Florida’s endangered species. Loss of habitat, overhunting, and reduction of available prey have had a deadly effect. There probably aren’t more than 50 or 60 Panthers left in the wild. Recently, disease has taken over the few Panthers that remain. There is little hope the Panther’s specie can be rehabilitated. Thus, ecologists expect the Panther to be extinct in a very few years.

Five months later, Craig Pittman, St. Petersburg Times, wrote an article titled “Politics threatens panthers’ future.” Pittman advised that Florida’s Panther population has reached its peak in the habitat that is left. To be a self-sustaining population, at least 300 cats are needed. In the 1980s, the population had fallen to less than 30 cats. Inbreeding among the decimated population of cats had produced fatal birth defects. State biologists brought in 8 female Texas Cougars and, for awhile, their cross-breeding in the swamps of South Florida worked and the numbers grew to about 100 cats. But now the cats need more space. And that means stopping urban growth or moving them. Politics prevents either idea from working. Pittman observed:

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which spends more than $1.2 million a year on panther protection, has not blocked a single development that altered panther habitat. Former agency employees say every time they tried, “we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster,” said Linda Ferrell, who retired in 2005.

The irony is that the Endangered Species Act promises protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with the responsibility of Panther protection, but doesn’t protect them at all. So, why do we kid ourselves and budget $120,000 “per cat” each year of taxpayer’s money for Panther “protection”?

To get a flavor of public opinion, the web comments following the posted article are worth a quick read. For example:

Either protect the animal in a way that proves to be sustainable recovery, or just stop wasting tax payer’s money to make a showing of it all. This is the kind of crap that people are tired of hearing about. If the politics of this situation are not going to be confronted, then why continue?

It’s 100 panthers that are 99.9999% identical to the mountain lions of the west. We ought to be preserving VERY little land for them. I think the national parks/swamps and state parks are enough habitat. If they can’t survive they should be moved to zoos.

Sad but true. Until the last 100 Panthers are finally gone, that’s where most of us will end up seeing these sleek and beautiful creatures – in a zoo, where I took these pictures.

The dark, narrow, linear shadows on the Panther and the pool of water? Cage bars.

Florida Panther - Lowry Park Zoo

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. Over the next several weeks, we will continue our look at Disappearing Florida. The Florida Panther is the second in the series.

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7 Comments on "Disappearing Florida – the Florida Panther"

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Nice article Dick!

Wow – great blog!

You are so damn good in the things you do. The photos and stories are very disturbing. Thanks, the down shot of the animal’s back with all its muscles in show is a stark contrast to the bleak story you give. The shading produces a very powerful picture.

This series is so captivating and thoughtful–and a stunning image Katee

Hi Dick: Keep up the great work ! I too remember the Everglades from trips with my grandmother who was sn ardent early environmentalist, Kami Smith

Dear Dick, Thank you, as always, for the great photographs and article on the Florida panther. I am enjoying your series on Disappearing Florida after spending much time in the Everglades with my parents when I was growing up. Karen

A sad tale indeed! As always, beautiful photography. Take care, Peter