Panther kills 500-pound pet pony in Golden Gate Estates
Wyatt Stehling, 6, rides his partially-blind pet pony Maximus. Maximus was killed in a Golden Gate Estates panther attack on Oct. 5, 2018. Naples Daily News
Courtney Stehling woke up in a panic last week when her husband told her their pony Maximus was missing on their property in Golden Gate Estates.
“When he went out to feed them breakfast around 5:30 a.m. Maximus wasn't coming up for food,” Stehling said earlier this week. “My other horses weren't coming up for food, and we had to get their attention to come up.”
Stehling's 2-acre property on Sixth Street Southeast is mostly cleared but has a wooded area to provide shade for the horses. After about 10 minutes of searching the morning of Oct. 5, Stehling found Maximus.
"As soon as I saw him, I knew,” Stehling said. “Maximus was attacked and killed by a panther.”
Maximus, a gift for the Stehling's 6-year-old son, Wyatt, was kept in a large pen on Stehling's property with three regular-size horses. The pen is enclosed by a 5-foot fence and some wire, but the panther still was able to get to Maximus.
It was the 20th reported incident of a pet or livestock animal killed or injured by a panther in the state this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Some of the incidents involved the killing of multiple animals by a panther, and the bulk took place in Collier County; only two incidents were reported outside Collier County this year. (A panther was recorded on camera killing a pet cat earlier this year.)
By the numbers: A look at Florida panther deaths from 2014 to 2018
Panther attacks on livestock
In 2017, the agency recorded 49 panther attacks on pets or livestock resulting in injury or death in Collier County. The FWC recorded 25 such panther attacks in 2016.
If necessary, biologists might distribute information to Estates residents about how to prevent panther attacks, said Carol Lyn Parrish, a spokeswoman for the FWC.
"You are in an area there in Collier where we have an existing panther population with a good habitat for them,” Parrish said. “I am not aware of any other facts that are causing attacks in Collier."
Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades.
How to prevent panther attacks
To prevent attacks on pets and livestock and co-exist with Florida panthers, an endangered species, residents should do the best they can to secure their property, she said.
“We suggest you don't have free-roaming pets.” Parrish said. “Panthers, much like a lot of other wildlife, are opportunistic, and if they find something they can prey upon, they will take that opportunity."
Securing animal pens and reinforcing them can greatly discourage panther attacks, Parrish said.
The FWC also recommends residents in areas prone to panther attacks install electric fences around animal pens and add motion-activated lights.
Clearing or mowing vegetation that could conceal panthers, as well as refraining from feeding other types of wildlife, can prevent panther attacks, according to the FWC.
Losing Maximus the pony
For Stehling, a resident of the Estates for 28 years, the loss of Maximus is a big one.
"We were getting weight on him, teaching him how to ride, and I bought him for my son,” Stehling said. “We had to start from the beginning with him because he was blind in one eye and rescued from a bad situation.”
Maximus was about 4 or 5 years old and weighed 500 to 600 pounds when he was killed.
Stehling said she told Wyatt the truth about what happened to Maximus so he could learn about the dangers of certain wildlife and be aware of his surroundings even at home.
An FWC biologist went to Stehling’s home last week to confirm it was a panther that killed Maximus.
"He took pictures of the paw prints,” Stehling said. “It was very, very visible and clear what happened. You could tell where he was attacked and where the fight started and ended."
Stehling said she is taking extra precautions to prevent another attack, including adding extra wire to the top of her fencing, installing a flashing red light and motion sensor lights near her house, and leaving a radio on at all times in her horse pasture.
"I don't know how effective these extra precautions will be,” Stehling said. “If the panthers want to get something, they will get something.”
Stehling will keep a closer eye on her young son, who will not be allowed to play outside near her home without an adult close by, she said.
“The last two years have been the worst I've ever seen it, with more attacks,” Stehling said. “They are taking people's living because people sell goats and cattle and horses for a living, and they can't do that with panthers attacking them."
Her family will greatly miss Maximus’ affection, Stehling said.
"We will miss his kisses,” Stehling said.
To report an attack
To report a suspected panther attack, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC(3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone.