By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
MIAMI -- One curious Florida panther left tracks as it peeked into a home window. One poached four emus from a petting zoo. Others crept into exurban backyards and slinked away with squealing family pets.
As the Florida panther has climbed back from the brink of extinction in recent years, many Floridians have cheered the revival of the state's wildlife icon. But that success is also prompting growing worries, particularly from residents now acutely aware of the danger of living among the predators.
Earlier this month, residents of Collier County met with state and federal wildlife officials to hear tips for staying safe while living in panther habitat, including this one: "Keep children close to you, especially outdoors between dusk and dawn."
"We used to have a large buffer between panthers and homes," said Darrell Land, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Now people are here, and literally a few feet away is panther habitat."
"In some cases, the animal seemed to be getting a little too comfortable around people," Jim Coletta, a commissioner in Collier County, recently informed constituents. "I was especially concerned that a small child at play, or at a bus stop, could be vulnerable to attack."
About 20 years ago, there were no such worries. Scientists feared instead that Florida panthers were on their way to extinction. Their numbers had plummeted to 30 or so, mainly because of hunting and loss of habitat, and those that remained showed signs of inbreeding, such as undescended testicles.
Since then, wildlife biologists have introduced closely related Texas cougars to broaden the gene pool, and the number of panthers has at least doubled and may be as high as 100, scientists said. Because the animal's range can extend 100 square miles or more, that relatively small increase in panthers dramatically expands the population's geographical reach.
Although there are no recorded attacks by Florida panthers on humans, as suburbia continues to creep into panther habitat, interactions appear inevitable.
The number of panthers killed on roadways has steadily trended upward in the past six or seven years, Land said, with this year's count at 10 -- a staggering percentage of the total population.
Moreover, while confirmed panther attacks on pets and livestock were almost unheard of a decade ago, this year there have been six, officials said. And many cases of disappearing animals are not reported or cannot be confirmed as panther-related if no tracks or clear signs are left.
"Some people think, 'Hey, the panthers are in our back yards. Let's get them out of there,' " said Capt. Jayson Horadam of the Florida wildlife commission. "Some people say they're bolder, they're more aggressive, and there's something going on. But we believe there are simply more cats and more people and, as a result, more interactions."
While many residents are unconcerned about the dangers -- noting they already live with alligators or bears -- Coletta said some people who have had close encounters with panthers are worried about taking their children outside at night.
The effort to restore the Florida panther population has already come under fire because some researchers say there are few meaningful distinctions between the Florida cats and cougars, which are relatively plentiful elsewhere in the United States.
"People say, 'Why are you bothering?' " Land said. "But these are the last ones east of the Mississippi."
Concerned that fears could doom efforts to rebuild the population, wildlife officials have set out to maintain the peace between people and panthers.
Officials have urged residents to report disappearances of pets and other animals, so they can determine from the "crime scene" whether a panther is involved.
"As soon as Fluffy goes missing, call us immediately," said Dani Moschella, spokeswoman for the wildlife agency.
Pet owners in the affected areas are encouraged to keep pets inside or in an enclosure that has a roof. Residents who encounter a panther should not run, but should make themselves appear larger by opening their jackets or raising their arms. Officials also advise homeowners to remove hedges and other plants that could allow panthers to hide while stalking backyard prey.
"Panthers are ambush predators -- they'll try to sneak up behind you," Land said. "If they don't have that secure stalking cover, that will be of help."
Even so, as Floridians and their favored feline become more numerous, most observers predict more meetings of people and panthers.
"Our panther restoration program has been extremely successful," Coletta said. "But the surplus animals need a place to live. So they're being forced into the urban areas."