Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tourists photograph Florida panther stalking deer

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Visitors to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary witness panther stalking deer

Originally published 5:55 p.m., Friday, February 20, 2009
Updated 9:07 p.m., Friday, February 20, 2009

NAPLES — Call it beginner's luck.

Gail and Art Marks had absolutely no idea that what they were witnessing was an extremely rare wildlife sighting when they saw a panther stalking a deer just yards away from the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples shortly past 5:30 p.m. last Friday.

Nonetheless, the New Jersey vacationers have the photographic proof to share with those who know just how special their experience was.

Gail Marks said she initially didn't think the panther sighting was much of a big deal.

"We were being corralled out at closing time and we were walking the last couple hundred yards of the boardwalk when I looked over and saw the panther," she said. "I pointed at it, and everybody stopped and looked. That's when I handed my husband the camera and told him to start taking pictures." Using a Kodak on 10-times zoom, Marks said her husband started snapping away.

"He was shooting and the panther kept coming toward us because it was stalking the deer," she said. "I think everybody on the boardwalk spooked the deer, because then it started running away directly into the direction of the panther." Momentarily startled, Marks said the panther then took off after the deer, rapidly gaining ground.

"The last thing we saw was the panther leaping over a hill, and then it was just gone," she said.

Marks said the panther didn't seem the least bit fazed by its human audience.

"The panther wasn't scared of us at all — his eyes were just on that deer," she said. "To tell you the truth, I felt pretty bad for the deer, but I guess that's just life in the wildlife world."

Jason Lauritsen, assistant director of the sanctuary located north of Immokalee Road, said the photographs show that the panther was an excellent specimen.

"It was a young, healthy panther that still had kitten-like characteristics, with dark marking near its eyes," he said.

Lauritsen said sanctuary staff was amazed at the proximity of the sighting.

"It was a really unique encounter," he said. "First of all, it was during the day near the boardwalk where visitors cross. Second of all, to witness it stalking a deer is really special."

Lauritsen said estimates of panther numbers range from 100 to 120, a slight improvement from a number that once dipped below 100. He cites the introduction of eight female Texas cougars into Southwest Florida in 1995 as a main reason the population is beginning to bounce back.

"The population has come back a bit since then, but what it all boils down to is that it's still one of the rarest mammals in North America," he said.

Though photographic evidence of panthers at the sanctuary isn't unheard of, Lauritsen said the Marks' encounter was definitely unique.

"We have a few remote cameras out there that get pictures on a pretty regular basis, but not like the ones that the Marks' took," Lauritsen said. "The ones they have are like something out of "Wild Kingdom" or The Discovery Channel."

Lauritsen said about seven panthers call Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary home.

"We have a pretty dense population, including a few pre-dispersal males that haven't found their own territory yet," he said. "Still, we have some people who have worked here for years who haven't seen one. Then again, we have some interns who have worked here only a couple of months who have. It's hit or miss."

Lauritsen said the Marks definitely fell on the "hit" side of that equation.

"Those folks were very, very lucky," he said.

After once enjoying a range that stretched as far north as Arkansas and South Carolina, panthers are now exclusively located in Southwest Florida. They have been on the federal endangered species list since 1967, and on the state's endangered species list since 1973.

Vehicle collisions, loss of habitat and scarcity of prey are among the greatest factors that have contributed to the decimation of the panther population in the Southeastern United States.

For more information on the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, call (239) 348-9151, or visit

E-mail John Osborne at


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