By ERIC STAATS
Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:58 p.m.
NAPLES — Seeing an endangered Florida panther in the wild is a rare event for most people.
Rarer still? Proof of one behind the gates of an upscale urban neighborhood.
Nonetheless, a string of reported sightings of the wildcats has people talking at the Strand and Collier's Reserve communities along Immokalee Road in North Naples.
Thanks to a preserve area that runs north of the Strand and west to Collier's Reserve, residents are used to seeing wildlife — from deer and bobcats to coyotes and opossums, the Strand property manager Neil Dorrill said.
"This was different," Dorrill said of the panther sighting reports.
Besides the reports of a sighting at the Strand and at Collier's Reserve, a panther also was reported crossing Livingston Road near the Strand, Dorrill said. None of the sightings have been confirmed.
The reports prompted Dorrill to issue a "wildlife alert" that was distributed at the Strand gatehouse before Thanksgiving.
The memo says residents should observe any panthers they see with caution and provides a phone number to report sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The neighborhood is taking the alert in stride, master homeowners association past president Ken Hedges said.
"Nobody's hunkering down or anything like that," he said. "I think they are as afraid of us as we are of them."
At Collier's Reserve, resident Suzanne Lipman said her neighborhood has a healthy respect for its abundant wildlife — including any panther that wants to have a look around.
"He has a right to be here just as much as I do," Lipman said.
While it's "highly unlikely" a panther is prowling North Naples, it isn't out of the question, Conservation Commission research scientist Dave Onorato said.
"If it is a panther, it isn't going to stay in there for long," he said.
The preserve area is too close to too much human activity, too small and too lacking in prey for a wide-ranging panther to find it very homey, he said.
One explanation for the sightings is that people are mistaking a bobcat for a panther, Onorato said.
Panthers average 100 pounds, are tan with a white underbelly and have a long tail. Bobcats are much smaller, about 20 pounds, have hardly any tail and are mottled gray, black and white.
Onorato guessed that any panther in North Naples probably is a young male looking to establish its own territory in an increasingly crowded world.
The panther population has grown from a few dozen to more than 100 since the 1980s — at the same time urban growth is taking away their habitat, scientists said.
Panthers have found their way into the urban area before.
In 2007, dogs chased a panther up a tree on Heritage Trail southwest of Davis Boulevard and County Barn Road in East Naples.
Before Physicians Regional Medical Center was built on Collier Boulevard, a radio-collared panther was tracked crossing the busy road.
While the predators have been known to attack penned animals in rural parts of Collier County, humans have little to fear from them, Onorato said.
There have been no reported instances of a Florida panther attacking a human.
"A panther venturing into town is probably just trying to find a way back out," Onorato said.
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Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.