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A Florida panther mother and two male kittens were released April 10, 2018, in the Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County. (Video by: Carlton Ward Jr. in partnership with FWC)

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Florida panther 224 has a colorful history.

Wildlife enthusiasts have followed her closely since she was found in 2013, when she about 9 months old, with a broken leg outside a home in Golden Gate Estates. Panther biologists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission numbered her FP224. She was rehabilitated in captivity and released about 30 miles east of where she was found.

Before long, she was back.

FWC panther team leader Darrell Land said it was like a GPS system activated and she zoomed right back to the Estates area. She was noticed again about a year ago when she was struck by a vehicle that broke her leg — like the first time — but this time, she had three kittens with her.

Her story took a tragic turn. Panther biologists picked up her two male kittens, but by the time they returned to find the female kitten, it had been killed by a vehicle on Interstate 75.

When FP224 was released with her two male kittens, she returned to her old stomping grounds. Her kittens stuck around the Estates area, but both eventually were killed by vehicles, too.

Those cats, released in April, were a few of the 26 panthers the FWC recorded as killed by vehicles in 2018, among 30 panthers found dead last year.

More: Panther attacks on pets, livestock continue in Golden Gate Estates

More: ‘Now we know our goats didn’t get stolen’: Golden Gate Estates woman spots Florida panther in her backyard

Florida panther numbers

The Florida panther is an endangered species that historically ranged across the southeastern United States, but the population drastically dropped due to hunting and habitat destruction, according to the FWC.

Scientists have increased their estimates of how many panthers are in the wild, but habitat destruction remains the greatest barrier to recovery for the Florida panther.

The 26 vehicle deaths in 2018 were up two from 2017. The total number of panthers found dead in 2018 matched 2017's 30.

The most recent panther death reported by the FWC was on Dec. 29. The panther died in a fight with another panther, biologists said.

Although the numbers didn’t decrease, the total number of panther deaths points to more positive conclusions.

“Panther mortalities seem to have tracked very well with the rise of panther numbers in the past few decades,” Land said. “When we see the number of panther deaths that we’re seeing today, it’s actually a sign of a good thing — that we have more panthers out there.”

The data: A look at Florida panther deaths from 2014 to 2018

The FWC's Panther Pulse website lists three new litters of kittens found in 2018. Land cautioned against basing any conclusions off that number, because not every new litter is tracked.

When Land began his work in the 1980s, there were only 10 to 20 panthers, he said. Now, although the species has not made a full recovery, there are 120 to 230 panthers. The  number is not more specific because “panthers are notoriously hard to count,” he said.

“It’s a tremendous conservation gain for Florida panthers,” Land said. “It’s certainly not teetering on the edge of extinction anymore.”

Living with panthers

Meredith Budd, the Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said it is exciting to follow the progress of panthers such as FP224.

“We see that this is a panther that we’ve followed over time, and this panther has now had a new litter,” Budd said of when FP224 had her ill-fated kittens, as a cat continuing to have litters is encouraging. 

Environmental groups use the Florida panther as a guiding species in their conservation work.

“The Florida panther is a keystone species, if you will, so what’s good for the panther is what’s good for many other native species,” she said.

Wildlife corridors and underpasses are important for preserving habitat connectivity, Budd said.

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Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com

Considering that most Florida panthers killed in 2018 were struck by vehicles, Budd suggested drivers be cautious.

“(Understand) that you really do need to be mindful and drive the speed limit and keep in mind that this is an area where panthers can and may be crossing the road,” she said.

A handful of panthers were killed by other panthers over the past few years. Budd said those deaths could have been results of habitat loss, which forces the far-ranging panthers into the same living areas as others.

To prevent panther attacks

The FWC provides suggestions on its website to make yards less attractive to panthers. Among them:

  • Put electric fencing around animal pens.
  • Install motion-activated lighting.
  • Clear vegetation that could conceal panthers.
  • Don’t feed wildlife; that practice could attract panthers to potential prey.

The FWC also provides suggestions for what to do if you encounter a Florida panther:

  • Keep children in sight and nearby.
  • Give the panther space.
  • Do not run. Stand and face the animal, making eye contact.
  • Make yourself appear larger (open your jacket, raise your arms) and throw stones and branches without turning away.
  • If attacked, fight back, using what you can without turning your back.
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