Friday, December 11, 2009

Killer of Florida panther is still on the loose

Reward Offered After Decapitated Panther Found

Posted: 5:29 pm EST December 10, 2009
Updated: 7:16 pm EST December 10, 2009

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. -- They're some of the world's rarest cats, but someone killed a Florida panther in south Osceola County and cut off its head. Wildlife officials are offering a reward as they hunt for the hunter.

The Florida panther is the state's most-endangered animal and one of its most prized. The Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) says that's probably why one was decapitated and left on the side of the road the week of Thanksgiving. Officers think someone mounted the head.

"That's pretty sad what people can do. You take a beautiful animal like that and you wonder who could do such a thing," said Debbie Helsel, Back To Nature animal sanctuary.

The pictures are too graphic even for wildlife rehabilitators who work with the animals so Eyewitness News chose not to display them. FWC says there are only about 80 Florida panthers left in the wild.

It's a felony to kill the state- and federally-protected animal. Violators face charges up to five years in jail and a $15,000 fine.

"We are trying to save a natural resource that is depleted and struggling to survive," FWC Lt. Rick Brown said.

Because it is part of a criminal investigation, officials only say it was left on the side of the Florida Turnpike in the south part of Osceola County. Wildlife officials aren't sure how the animal died. They have yet to examine the body, because their panther scientists are in the field, but Lt. Brown and Debbie Helsel both say there's never been such a blatant case of foul play.

"You take one of God's creatures, that's as beautiful as that, and you do something to them, it's just unnecessary," Helsel said.

The FWC is offering a $1,000 reward for anyone with information. So far, they've only gotten one tip and it turned out to be nothing


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