Changing Planet

How One Rescued Florida Panther is Everybody’s Florida Panther

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.

Tragic Beginning

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.

(Image credit Janet Molchan)
(Image credit Janet Molchan)

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.

(image credit Diane Randolph)
(image credit Diane Randolph)

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.

Becca Bryan is a published freelance writer in Florida. Her work includes interviews with celebrities, U.S. military members, veterans, journalists, and takes great pride in highlighting Florida wildlife and those who care for it.
  • Bob Gunn

    Very interrsting article and extremely well written.
    Thank you National Geographic and Ms. Bryan

  • David Victor

    A poignant tale of magnificent creatures being pushed to the edge of extinction. We must remember we are merely fellow members of the animal kingdon who have developed a big attitude. We are all sharing Spaceship Earth and the viability of any species reflects directly on our own viability. Well done, Ms Bryan and team. A must read.

  • Natalie

    Handing a wild creature over to live a life of prisoner within an amusement park/monorail setting is disgusting. This article did nothing in the way of investigative journalism; Easy placative answers were sought and accepted pertaining to the necessity of captivity for K434.
    A future in the wild, while absolutely involving dangers from traffic and development, is at least a life in the wild. The now human-determined future for K434 involves unending interaction with humans, perpetual fencing, forced breeding and repetitive transport. Her life in the wild would have been hard – food meager and habitat fragmented- but at least she would be the free animal her mother raised her to be. Her future now will be sharing space with 3,000 other animals – all stuck behind a 3-mile circumference of fencing. The noise is unending, the stress is factual, and the only species that feel better about this outcome are the humans.

    • Becca Bryan

      Hi Natalie,
      K434 is not living a live of a prisoner. She lives a life that is full of enrichment, love and excellent care. I understand that many people do not like zoos or places like it. But there are some great zoos which do great work in animal conservation both domestically in the US and internationally.

      This article is meant to bring attention and awareness to the plight of Florida panthers, and not an investigative journalistic article.
      K434 is where she is today due to vehicle collisions killing her family, and her young age at the time. She was not a good candidate for rehab and release. Not all animals are prime candidates for release. This is a hard fact to grasp for an animal lover like me and you, and the others. But it IS the cold hard to take truth.

      It’s an easy gripe to say that she may have a life of unending human interaction, perpetual fencing, forced breeding and repetitive transport. No one knows that for sure. I DO know that her human caretakers love her and take superb care of her, and she gets better care than some household pets receive.

      I appreciate your taking time to comment on the article. If you feel like it, look into how to speak up and take action for Florida panthers. It may prevent another panther kitten from being orphaned.

  • Christopher Verna

    Excellent article. To bad Natalie didn’t take the time to read it. This kitten obviously at 12 weeks would not survive on her own. Luckily there is a facility in between setting it free in the wild(certain death) and putting it in a cage to be in a zoo. Hard decisions have to be made and the panthers best interest is the motivation. Thanks for the article

  • Jennifer

    Great article. So sad to hear about the plight of the Florida Panther. A beautiful animal. I’m glad she found a loving home.

  • Natalie Boydstun

    The integrity of my comments related to K434’s captivity stem from an extensive background with wildlife rehabilitation. My knowledge of cortisol stress levels experienced by captive wildlife is not a personal interpretation- it is a scientific fact. Further, having first-hand experience within animal care facilities yields the reality that there is never enough enrichment nor respect by caregivers to satiate a wild animal’s sanity. At 12 weeks of age, K434 could have been integrated into the many programs that FWC has utilized in the past to release orphaned or captive bred wildlife back into the wild. In glorifying the false satiety of “The Good Life”, this article totally misses the opportunity to invigorate the issue of Florida panther conservation.

    • Becca Bryan

      Natalie, with respect to your experience with rehabilitated wildlife, you know that it is the state or federal agency that oversees the care of rehabbing animals that makes the decision about release or reintegration. K434’s situation was determined by the FWC with probably some feedback from the animal hospital where she was staying at the time. If they thought she was a good candidate for reintegration, perhaps they could have made the decision to go that route. But they did not.

      As I’ve stated before, this article is to bring awareness of the plight of the Florida panther, its habitat loss and threats, and remind readers what they can do to help conserve the population of this species.

      I chose to write through K434, who does, in fact, have a good life where she resides today.

  • Nicole landry

    Panthers are endangered species, soon we will be able to see them museum as sluptures. Thanks

    • Becca Bryan

      Hi Nicole,

      Thank you for commenting.
      The Florida panther is on the US Endangered Species List. But, there are many of these very special cats in southwest Florida. Their populaton count recently went up.

      There is a lot of action taking place to keep them and their habitat safe and to help their roaming space expand.

      The Florida panther starring in my article is everything a panther should be: shy, elusive, silent when she walks and runs, and a magnificent beauty. She’s a great animal ambassador for her species.

      Best always,
      Becca Bryan

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