Video: Diane Randolph –Video
Photographs: Janet Molchan and Ron Magill
A rescued 30-month-old Florida panther is an ambassador for her species and its disappearing natural habitat.
Stunning. Beguiling. Kittenish. Endangered. All of these words describe a young orphaned, rescued, non-releasable female Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) whose story is that of every Florida panther today.
Born somewhere in southwest Florida, the female panther named FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) Kitten 434 was found hiding in a Bougainvillea bush near a Naples, Florida tennis court. She was approximately 12 to 14 weeks old. Officials from the FWC were called, as is the law in Florida.
K434’s mom, a VHF-radio-collared panther was being tracked. K434, still a kitten, as baby panthers are called, was also being monitored by FWC and National Park Service (NPS) biologists, whose job it is to manage the species. To the biologists and rangers, it seemed as if K434’s mother had abandoned one of her three kittens due to a busy road dividing them.
K434’s Rescue, Rehab and Residence
State and federal wildlife officials, whose authority it is to make the decision to “take” wildlife, made the call to rescue K434 and take her to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, where she was treated for a few months. Her young age put her close to the end of a kitten’s socialization age. Essentially, she was probably old enough to know she was a panther, and young enough that she might accept people in her life.
While she was being cared for, word came from the field that her mom and a sibling had been killed by vehicle strike, an all too common cause of death for Florida panthers. Her other littermate(s) left behind, too young to survive on their own, likely suffered the same fate.
The FWC and the Service found a new home for K434 with a dedicated team of caregivers that included veterinarians, animal science specialists, animal keepers, and other staff at Zoo Miami, in south Florida.
Rob Lara, an animal science manager for Zoo Miami, recalls, “They’re the ones who made the call and said ‘it is in this animal’s best interest to come to a zoo.’ We can take it, give it the best life possible, with the most purpose, and (provide) the best welfare for this animal.” Today, K434 lives in a private part of the zoo and receives the best care.
In the video below, listen to Dr. Frank Ridgley DVM, Zoo Miami’s Director of Conservation and Research, with Rob Lara, an animal science manager for Zoo Miami talk with Becca Bryan about K434’s rescue, rehab and placement.
The professionals who care for K434 think of her as everybody’s Florida panther. That is, everybody can represent her, and all the others, because they can’t represent themselves in their fight to survive in a congested area.
Threats to the Florida Panther
Searching for a quiet, uncrowded, safe place to call home, Florida panthers are finding less space to roam and live. In the continually populating south Florida region, panthers are losing space to:
• Habitat encroachment, fragmentation and loss
• Road construction
• Residential and commercial land development in panther habitat
• Pre-hydraulic fracturing activities in panther habitat
Florida Panther Conservation
K434 is a perfect example of what could become of orphaned kittens left when adult mothers are forced to move their litters to safer, quieter spaces, away from the growing crush of people, buildings, roads and vehicles. When their primary habitat shrinks, panthers will seek someplace else to go. However, there will soon be very few spaces for them.
Panther conservation is a hot issue in the many sectors of Florida. Animal welfare advocates are passionate about saving the species, which is listed as Endangered by the Service. It is estimated there are between 100 and 180 left. State and federal agencies monitor the panther population. Zoo Miami’s Conservation and Research staff provides veterinary assistance to NPS and FWC teams that helps track panthers in Big Cypress National Preserve in southwest Florida.
“The zoo is dedicated to Florida panther recovery,” states Dr. Frank Ridgley, Zoo Miami’s Director of Conservation and Research. “We’re out in the field doing hands-on work” with the NPS and FWC. Zoo professionals assist in ongoing monitoring of the Florida panther population, tracking mortality events, learning about kitten survival, and more.
The Good Life
With a safe and quiet environment in which to grow up, K434 (to be given a new name later) is not yet part of the public part of the zoo. Her life entails the curious wonders of the outdoors in a safe space with plenty of room to run, leap, hide and sleep. She has a steady crew of caretakers who see to her every need 24/7/365. She slowly, cautiously let them into her life. They tip-toed respectfully into it. The once months-old kitten is now almost two years old. She takes pride in showing you that she is every bit the adult Florida panther in movement, and when still–yet all the while relaying an expression of the kitten inside. She represents her species proudly. But everybody’s Florida panther needs us to represent her, and the others.
What Can We Do
• Make a donation to a wildlife organization or a Florida Panther Recovery program and note “Florida panther conservation” in the description box (online) or the notes section on checks.
• Email Florida legislators and ask what the state is doing to conserve and protect Florida panthers.
• Visit an area zoo or wildlife sanctuary and ask if they have any panthers in residence. Ask them what they do to help panthers survive in the wild, and what they are doing with the panthers residing there.
Becca Bryan is a freelance writer in Florida. Her work includes interviews with celebrities, U.S. military members, veterans, journalists and more. She is a strong advocate for animals.