Sunday, March 15, 2009

Save the Florida Panther Week kicks off

Conservationists turn out to kick off Save the Florida Panther Week

6:56 p.m., Sunday, March 15, 2009

NAPLES — When it comes to saving the Florida panther, much more hangs in the balance than the fate of a single species in an isolated geographical area, experts say.

“If we can’t save panthers, chances are we can’t save ourselves,” says biologist Larry Richardson, who works on the 40-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s that irreverence for life.”

Fighting apathy is a battle waged one person at a time, Richardson said Sunday, following an informal lecture at the Naples Zoo that kicked off Save the Florida Panther Week. The week is dedicated to raising awareness of the panther’s plight and teaching the public about conservation efforts through lectures like Richardson’s.

It struck a chord with park visitor Kristine Kawa, who listened to the lecture with her mother, Sandra Kawa, and aunt, Barbara Cesana.

“I think we need to respect other living creatures,” said Kristine Kawa, a Palm City resident. “And, I think as a world and human population we need to take care of the world around us. That’s important to us being able to take care of each other, too.”

This week is about the Florida panther, but it goes so much deeper, said Takako Sato, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist also with the panther refuge and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

“I think that as human beings we have a responsibility for taking care of all parts of nature,” said Sato. “The panther is an umbrella species, so when you protect the panther and its habitat, you help protect the rest of the species.”

In addition to Fish and Wildlife representatives, volunteers and workers from other conservation and wildlife organizations set up tables at the zoo Sunday to share their role in the efforts.

Kim Hinrichs, a volunteer at Collier-Seminole State Park, made the rounds through the tables and past the panther habitat with her husband, Ernie, as a show of support.

“We’ve been rounding everyone up at Collier-Seminole and bringing them out,” she said. “(Florida Panthers are) becoming extinct and we have to make sure we follow and track them, and it’s important to keep them in this area... because south Florida is about the most beautiful tropical place I’ve seen and the panthers belong here.”

Panthers exist elsewhere in the United States, including Colorado and Texas. They once flourished throughout the southeastern United States, but now an estimated 80 to 100 live in the wild in Florida.

“They were here first, but people don’t want to hear that,” Richardson said. “They’ve moved into our territory, but it’s OK. We can manage it. It’s managing ourselves — that’s what’s so difficult.”

Just to see the three panthers at the Naples Zoo inspires respect. The cats are siblings, nearly 15 years old, and nearing the end of their life spans. As Richardson stood in front of their enclosure Sunday, the sister and two brothers regarded visitors almost apathetically as they sprawled in the mid-day heat.

“They look lazy; this is the way they were designed,” said Richardson. “They like to put out the least amount of effort for the greatest amount of reward.”

That means a dog or a goat tethered to a backyard leash looks like a free meal, said Richardson. Part of panther week is about teaching Southwest Floridians how to avoid run-ins with the predatory cats, including building “exclosures,” fenced pens with roofs to protect animals that stay outside at night.

Because that is when panthers typically hunt, it is important to give animals like chicken and goats a safe place to sleep, Richardson said. A simple fence will not do it, either, said Richardson. These cats can jump 8 feet in the air without batting an eyelash.

It may figure into the reverence humans feel for panthers, which possess almost supernatural grace and strength.

“I think there’s a mystique to panthers,” said Clyde Cox, a volunteer with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “You don’t meet them on every street corner.”


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