|The Eastern Panther
or Florida Panther as it is now often called, is America's most endangered mammal ! There are only 30 to 50 of these truly
magnificent creatures left in the world.
Florida puts her name to the panther calling it the Florida
Panther due to boasting the last living population in the southeastern part of the United
is now strong evidence supporting the existence of a few isolated individuals roaming
throughout the eastern United States.) Once with a roaming range of 30 to 40 miles, these
critters now must roam in some instances as much as 400 square miles due to habitat
reduction, changes in the availability of their prey and the constant construction of
major highways and corridors through their habitats.
The Eastern Panthers have a reddish brown to tan back with tan sides. They weigh between 65 to 130
pounds and grow to be 6 feet in length from their nose to the tip of their tail, on
The Florida species of panthers prefer to
live in well-drained hammocks, pine flatwoods, or cabbage palms. Like most areas of the United States, the
habitats and forests where the panther once roamed freely for hundreds of years, have been
cut down for housing, citrus groves, farming and cattle ranching (one of Florida's fastest
growing and largest industries). Therefore, they are now also found in Cypress swamps and
other swamps. Most Panthers are very unhealthy due to inbreeding, lack of food, and
pollutants from the rivers. With so few panthers now left in the wild, inbreeding can not
be avoided. Thus the Texas Panther project was introduced to help propagate and help
strengthen the breed. This project has been met with much difficulty due to people
shooting the animals, road accidents, and once again pollutants.
Due to habitat reduction and urban
sprawl, finding food becomes a difficult problem. The favorite food of the Eastern Panther is
small Florida deer. They are fond of all types of smaller critters which include rats,
raccoons, wild hogs, armadillos and have even been known to eat baby alligators. Their
food types vary with the habitat conditions, and indigenous wildlife of the area. Being
semi-nocturnal, and seeing well at night they choose to do most of their hunting during
this time. After a night of hunting, the panther makes a fresh den under a shade bush to
rest during the heat of the day.
Male panthers mark their own
territory by making small piles of leaves and branches then urinating on them. The territory can range from 150 miles in
south Florida and 400 square miles in the mountainous areas of the southeastern United
States. This territory is off limits to all other panthers wanting to hunt, and is
fearlessly defended, oftentimes to death. The younger males are forced to leave the area
by the older more dominant males, often having to travel hundreds of miles to find
unclaimed hunting grounds. This search often leads to private lands and small commercial
forests. With less and less wild habitat, the young panthers have nowhere to go.
During mating season, males allow
the female to share his established territory. Mating season starts in November and lasts until March. She
usually has 1 to 4, almost hairless, spotted kittens. While away hunting, she hides her
kittens in a dry den, tucked away in a palmetto thicket (in the south Florida area), or in
a rock cave or ledge in the mountainous areas of the southeast. If the young ones stray
away from their den, a hawk or other critters might make easy prey of them. The most
conducive place to rear her young is away from any major roads. Mothers nurse their
kittens for up to 8 weeks and at times have to be away as much as 36 hours at a time to
get food. The young ones can go up to days without food.
At three months, the kittens have
blue eyes and a ringed tail.
They are the size of a house cat with dark brown spots and light brown in color. At six
months, the kittens lose their spots and ringed tail, their eyes turn brown and their paws
have almost developed to full size. They start looking like their mother more and more,
who they stay with up to two years before she leaves them one day at a kill to fend for
themselves. The mother panther then goes off to start the mating cycle all over again.
The Eastern Panther was
greatly respected and even worshiped by the Cherokee Indians of the North Carolina &
North Georgia mountains. Also,
the Calusa Indians of the Florida Keys and Everglades respected and protected the panther,
who they considered sacred. All of this was soon to change with the invasion of the
Europeans as they began to settle and populate in the new world.
The new settlers were fearful of
this large, shy cat.
They were not used to an animal that screamed loudly at night and chirped like a bird.
This animal was falsely blamed for every farm animal that was killed, every child that
disappeared, and anything else they could make up. In reality, no documentation in all of
Florida's history has proven a single person or livestock has been killed by a panther.
Even though no proof existed, the 1832 Florida Territory Legislature started to pay its
residents to kill the Eastern Panther. In 1887, the price had gone to $5.00 per
scalp. As the number of settlers in Florida increased, the wilderness areas were
logged heavily and burned. The swamps were drained and polluted. The panther
was driven to the cypress and everglade swamps. (The same treatment was given to all of
the Eastern Panther species in the south and northeast of the United States.)
Finally, in 1950 concerned
residents of the state of Florida convinced the government to make it illegal to kill a
panther, almost too late being that approximately 158,000 eastern panthers have
already been murdered! By 1973,
the panther had been put on the Endangered Species List. In 1976, the Florida Game and
Fresh Water Fish Commission started the Panther Recovery Plan. Finally in 1978, it became a felony to kill
Now in 1999, the Ellijay
Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary is well under way to save the Eastern Panther in our
wonderful state of Georgia. Since 1996, we have been trying to educate and share with our fellow
citizens the fate of this last large carnivore in our ecosystem. We are proud to share
that we have been directly involved in the birth and raising of 5 Eastern Panthers here at
the Ellijay Wildlife and Rehabilitation Sanctuary. We have had two confirmed sightings of
wild panthers at the sanctuary. These sightings were probably brought on by having the
captive panthers present at the sanctuary.
It will probably take years to
re-establish a living population in the North Georgia, North Carolina mountains. We currently have never released any
panther or mountain lions ourselves. If and when this wonderful dream were to be realized,
it could only be done in conjunction with many government agencies. There is
something you can do as a citizen. You can write your governor, your senator, and state your willingness to once again have this magnificent
creature in our few yet strong wilderness areas.
Let us not forget - IF OUR
WILDLIFE CEASES TO LIVE, SO DO YOU AND SO DO I - its called the circle of life.
here to play a game to
test your knowledge of panthers.
Director of the
Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary and Outdoor Education Program