By KATHLEEN CULLINAN
Monday, May 14, 2007
Her life ended on Corkscrew Road, a few paces away from the 100-foot wide underpass that offered protection in her northbound hunt for food.
Now the Florida panther lay draped across plastic-wrapped cuts of deer meat in a freezer at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission storefront in Naples. Authorities estimate the female cat was about 4 years old when it was hit by a truck Monday morning east of Estero, the ninth of its kind killed on a state roadway this year.
“Normally we bag them up and everything, but she was covered in fire ants,” said Mark Lotz, a panther biologist for FWC. “We threw her in here just to slow the ants down so we could look at her.”
Lotz pushed the cat’s upper lip to bare its gums and the slightly worn teeth that helped determine its age. But for a fleshy scrape on the left thigh and a trail of ants across the neck, the panther showed no sign of the collision or the two hours it lay by the side of Corkscrew until an FWC officer came for the carcass.
It’s been both a banner year so far and a tough first five months for the panthers, an endangered species that hovers mostly in a shrinking undeveloped swath of Southwest Florida.
The commission has documented the births of 29 kittens, compared with 21 in 2006, and now the deaths of 12 panthers.
The vast majority, like the one in Estero, were struck by vehicles.
Eleven in all died that way last year.
Lotz said a bypasser saw the truck hit the panther at about 6:45 a.m. Monday near the intersection of Alico Road and called for help. The cat was probably headed toward the airport and Florida Gulf Coast University, he said, looking for deer or hogs that still graze in the untouched patches.
“For a large cat, they’re dainty,” Lotz said, looking over the panther’s lanky tan body and thick, round black paws. “Unfortunately, this is how most people see them.”
Some 32 panthers have brown, belt-like tracking collars strapped around their necks to help scientists follow the population. And nearly 300 cats have been injected with tiny glass microchips, in a looser guage of their origin.
But this panther carried neither. It had never been handled.
At about 1:30 in the afternoon, the carcass was loaded onto the bed of a pickup, headed to Gainesville for a necropsy. Authorities will collect samples of the panther’s organs, look for signs of traditionally common genetic flaws like twisted spleens and holes in the heart.
They will collect the cat’s hide and skeleton for an archive. The rest of its remains will be incinerated.
Lutz said the Florida panther population rose steadily from between 30 and 50 during the 1980s to now nearly 100, thanks in part to the introduction in the mid-1990s of several Texas cougars. But even with that boost, the cats struggle to find the space they need to thrive, he said.
A male cat needs about 200 square miles to roam, while a female need about 80. Drive across Florida, and the dilemma isn’t hard to compute. In his office, Lutz ran his finger across dark green land on an aerial map of Collier and Hendry counties, circling the plots between water and houses where the cats live.
Where roads divide those open spaces, and panthers are killed trying to cross them, authorities have dug underpasses. The one on Corkscrew is bordered on both sides by about a half-mile of fencing, Lutz said, to guide cats like the one killed Monday toward the tunnel.
“Even though the habitat’s getting chipped away (in Lee County), they’re still going up there from time to time,” he said. “She just happened to be hit just a little outside” the fenced-in area.