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The Daring Ploy That Saved the Florida Panther

The Daring Ploy That Saved the Florida Panther

The calendar stated Jan. 17, 1983. Chris Belden and his panther-capture workforce — two biologists, two trackers and a pack of looking canine — have been trying to find FP3. Florida Panther three, as she was formally recognized, was the third of solely eight documented massive cats in the state. 

Today’s quest took them into the rutted logging trails and thick brambles of the Fakahatchee Strand, also referred to as the Fak, a swampy state protect east of Naples. Their objective was to tranquilize FP3 and change the batteries in her monitoring collar.

At about 11 a.m., the workforce’s canine treed the 70-pound feminine in a 30-foot-tall oak. Nobody had a transparent shot from the floor, so one in every of the hunters took a tranquilizer gun and climbed the tree. When he received about 18 ft off the floor, he took purpose and fired. The dart went into the again facet of the panther’s proper hind leg, and the drug took impact in 4 minutes. 

As they lowered the cat down with a rope, “blood was dripping from her nose,” Belden later wrote in a report. Once on the floor, they found “she was no longer breathing and there was no pulse.” 

Two workforce members tried reviving the animal with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, like a lifeguard with a drowning sufferer. They huffed and puffed, however to no avail.

“She was dead,” Belden wrote. 

He felt depressing. Belden, a biologist, had as soon as earlier than seen a useless feminine panther from the Fak, and now his workforce had killed a second one. He was positive it was all his fault. He had used the similar dosage that that they had a yr earlier than to seize the similar panther. What had gone mistaken? 

Belden slung the useless cat up onto his shoulders and started strolling out of the swamp, main his dejected workforce towards a reckoning. 


“At that point,” he stated years later, “I felt like I was carrying the whole subspecies on my shoulders. If the panther went extinct, it would be my fault. For all we knew, eight panthers were all that were left, and I had just killed one.”

As tragic as FP3’s loss of life was, the lack of the animal would in the end result in the salvation of her subspecies. But first, the panther consultants must navigate surprising genetic useless ends, controversial know-how and worrisome authorized protections.

A Deadly Diagnosis

Don’t let the identify idiot you: Florida panthers usually are not a part of the genus Panthera. Instead, they’re a subspecies of Puma concolor, also referred to as cougars or mountain lions. Because they’re a definite subspecies with a inhabitants that dropped beneath 30 cats, they’ve particular protections from the Endangered Species Act. FP3’s loss of life prompted an investigation, together with a necropsy.

When the University of Florida veterinarian’s report was accomplished, it didn’t specify what went mistaken with the seize of FP3. It simply stated, “The cause of death cannot be ascertained based on tissue findings. It is likely that it is related to an untoward effect of the anesthesia.” 

But the official verdict from the sport fee was that the dart had hit the cat’s femoral artery, delivering its dose of medicine far too rapidly. The cat was useless earlier than it hit the floor. 

Game fee officers determined to make a significant change in the make-up of the seize workforce. Instead of a hunter and a number of other biologists, they might add somebody new to the combine — somebody whose sole accountability was to make sure the security of the panther. They introduced in a veterinarian.

Once on the workforce, wildlife vet Melody Roelke got down to remedy the thriller of FP3’s loss of life. 

“When I first started,” Roelke says, “I used to be reviewing a tape of an previous American Sportsman present, as a result of they have been there for the first seize of FP3. So I’m watching this animal on the floor, and it’s barely respiration. Me, the animal, I can see she’s very, very deep by way of how the anesthetic affected her.” 


She knew then the dosage was too excessive. “Then the next year they capture her again and use the same dose. She never left the tree alive. That dose of the drug was too much for her.” 

Roelke doesn’t blame Belden for what occurred, although. Most wildlife companies of the time trusted their biologists to deal with the tranquilizer dart duties as a substitute of sending out educated vets, she says. Sometimes, animals die from the mistaken dosage. “It’s just a part of doing business. But if you’ve got a species where there’s only 30 left, and you kill one, that’s bad.” 

That wasn’t the solely thriller she needed to resolve. She was additionally searching for indicators that the panthers, at the inhabitants stage, have been having the similar downside as captive cheetahs she had studied in Oregon. “I came on board already looking for evidence of inbreeding,” Roelke says. 

She discovered it fairly quick.

Smoothing the Kinks

Roelke reviewed observations that the Florida seize workforce had made after years of monitoring panthers, searching for indicators of inbreeding. There have been three figuring out traits that made the Florida panthers totally different from different puma subspecies, akin to these in the western U.S. or Mexico: They had a dramatic 90-degree kink in the finish of their tails, a whorled cowlick in the fur on the center of their backs and white flecks scattered round their necks. Every panther Belden’s workforce and their successors caught had these similar three traits. 

Eventually, the seize workforce found out the white flecks have been the results of ticks nibbling on panther flesh, so that they dominated that the trait was not a defining attribute that each one panthers shared. But as captures continued, they noticed that the kinked tail and the cowlick remained a constant trait.

The cowlick wasn’t all that bothersome to the panthers — it’s a benign sample in the fur. But a kink that bends a cat’s tail at a 90-degree angle so exact it may very well be utilized in a math textbook? That was mistaken on the face of it. The 5 vertebrae that kind the kink wouldn’t have bent that method naturally, Roelke determined. 

She knew the kinked tails hinted at an underlying bottleneck in the species’ genetic make-up. A bottleneck occurs when the inhabitants of a species or subspecies drops so dramatically that what stays not has a various gene pool. She’d seen the similar phenomenon with cheetahs she had studied earlier in her profession.

The subsequent time the workforce captured a panther, Roelke collected samples of its pores and skin, blood and poop. From that seize on, she would ship a few of her samples to a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland named Stephen O’Brien. She had met him whereas checking what was mistaken with the cheetahs, and now she turned to him once more to find out if one other massive cat had the similar downside. 

Roelke was so intent on fixing this thriller that when she took trip time, she didn’t go away the panther puzzle behind. Instead, she says, “I would go to British Columbia, to Colorado, to Chile, and work with the biologists there. That way I was able to collect comparative samples.” 

Her suspicions have been confirmed. The panthers have been riddled with genetic defects on account of inbreeding. Besides the kinked tail and the cowlick, Roelke realized the females additionally had a small gap of their hearts that brought on a murmur, and the males in the Fak and the neighboring Big Cypress protect had dangerously low sperm counts.

The scenario was as dire as ever. To save the species would take a close to miracle.

The Last Resort

Filing right into a lecture corridor at White Oak Plantation Conservation Center in northern Florida on Oct. 21, 1992, almost a decade after FP3’s unintended loss of life, the panther consultants all wore a grim look. Attempts to breed Florida panthers in captivity and launch them into the wild had didn’t replenish the species. The animals have been teetering on the brink of extinction, and the vivid minds learning the downside had failed to avoid wasting them. 


The solely factor left, the solely choice for a Hail Mary move, was one thing nobody had ever tried. Something almost unthinkable. The document is unclear about who first introduced it up. Whoever it was, the two-word phrase she or he uttered was one thing nobody had needed to consider: genetic augmentation. 

Usually, when folks in Florida speak about “augmentation,” they’re speaking about cosmetic surgery — particularly breast or butt implants. But genetic augmentation is one thing else. It’s all about fixing a fouled-up gene pool by introducing one thing recent and new. 

How do you genetically increase the poor Florida panther? By bringing in another type of puma to breed with it. 

The panther panel acknowledged that this resolution was legally questionable due to the way it may have an effect on the cats’ safety beneath the Endangered Species Act. The act provides the Fish and Wildlife Service the energy to guard species, subspecies and distinct populations, in addition to their habitats. What the act doesn’t tackle is hybrids. Pushing the purebred panther to turn out to be extra of a melting pot for puma genes may permit companies or particular curiosity teams to quote that as a purpose to knock the Florida cats off the endangered record. They may use it as an excuse to open the already shrinking habitat for rampant growth. There may even be a return of the looking season. 

Eventually, the debate shifted. Instead of arguing over whether or not to herald one other type of puma to breed with the panthers, the consultants began arguing over which puma to make use of. 

The group backing genetic augmentation with a bunch of Texas cougars received the day. Although hailing from one other state with significantly drier circumstances, Texas cougars and Florida panthers are kissing cousins, genetically talking. Plus, the cougars had already been utilized in breeding experiments with panthers. 

In January 1995, all the bureaucrats concerned gave the seize workforce the inexperienced mild to convey eight feminine cougars from Texas and switch them unfastened in South Florida.

Who Let the Cats Out?

The biologists determined to launch the feminine cougars in pairs. The first pair have been taken to the Fak. There, close to the finish of an unpaved highway 10 miles from the nearest home, they have been put right into a chain-link enclosure. The launch plan known as for preserving them penned up there for 2 weeks. They have been fed deer meat and allowed to acclimate to the sights, smells and sounds of the swamp that was to be their new dwelling. 

Then, they have been launched into the wild. 

By October, sport fee officers have been prepared at hand out cigars. Their Hail Mary move had turn out to be a landing. 

One of the Texas females had given start to 2 kittens, a male and a feminine. They seemed to be freed from all genetic defects. No kinked tail. No cowlick. No coronary heart murmur. No issues with their reproductive system. The cougars succeeded the place almost everybody anticipated one more failure. 

Three different females didn’t get to play their half. One was run over on a freeway. Another was shot useless; nobody is aware of why or by whom. One extra died beneath unsure circumstances. She had been pregnant at the time. 

But the different 5 carried out like champions. They tailored properly to their new environment and produced litter after litter of defect-free kittens sired by the native male panthers.

Breeding with Texas cougars saved the Florida panther from extinction and even led to a child increase. Now, greater than 200 of the massive cats roam the wilds of Florida. It’s not an astronomical quantity, however in contrast with the 1980s, the panthers are not less than a couple of steps again from the brink of extinction.

[This story initially appeared in print as “Prowlers in Peril”]

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Excerpted from Cat Tale by Craig Pittman. Text Copyright 2020 by Craig Pittman. Permission to breed textual content granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

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