BIG CYPRESS — Surrounded by woods, Maria Marcano has manned the Big Cypress rock mining office for nearly five years. About the most exciting thing she’s seen are trucks loaded with material on the scale. That all changed on June 9 when a panther strolled by her window in the scale house.
“I never saw one before,” said Marcano, who captured a photo of the panther on her cell phone. “It was right in the open and walked on the road from the scale to the pit, about two miles. It probably came out of the woods because it was quiet that day.”
This wasn’t the only recent panther sighting in Big Cypress. Billie Swamp Safari posted a photo on Facebook of a panther handily climbing to the top of an animal enclosure June 17. A panther was seen in early June walking through the culture camp behind Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, where kittens were also seen a few months ago. Panther tracks were found in the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena in mid-June.
“We never saw them in the arena before,” said Earleen Rimes, arena office coordinator. “It was probably here during the night because we work in the arena all day. It looked like it was just passing through.”
Florida panthers have been on the endangered species list since 1967 and were included in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. By the early 1980s there were only 20-30 left in the wild. Since then, the population has rebounded to an estimated 100-180 thanks to a genetic restoration project. In 1995, eight female Texas cougars were brought in to improve the genetic health of the Florida panthers.
“We knew the small population was closely related and the genetic health wasn’t the best,” said Darrell Land, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It helped genetically to make them healthier animals. The females immediately bred with Florida males and since then they’ve bounced back.”
It isn’t unusual to see the animals on the reservation as it is located in panther habitat. The Environmental Resource Management Department, which has cameras set up to document panthers, has been collecting data for five years.
“We’ve seen them lately and I believe they move a lot more because of the rain,” said Pauline Campi, wildlife biologist. “As their prey moves, they move with it.”
Land said panthers have learned how to move with the water for centuries and figure out what areas to avoid and will use features like boardwalks to keep their feet dry.
“Panthers tend to be more active at night, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be out and about in daytime,” said Land, FWC Florida panther team leader. “Anytime is fair game. They will climb fences and go through yards.”
Panthers are curious, just like house cats. They will watch something, or someone, until they get bored and move on. Land said people think any wild animal will run away in fear right away, but that’s not the way it works.
“If you come across a panther, keep your distance,” he said. “Make sure it knows you’re there, speak up. You don’t want to surprise the cat. Don’t crouch down, make yourself look big. Almost every time, the cat will move off in the opposite direction, but it wouldn’t surprise me to have a staring contest with it for a minute or so.”
He said if you are with children or dogs, bring them close to you. Back up until you have more distance from the animal. Never run away from a panther; that could trigger the hunting instinct and the chase response.
“I wouldn’t turn my back on the animal. I’d enjoy watching it as I slowly walk backwards,” Land said.
Individuals are invited to post photos of panthers in the wild on the FWC website at www.floridapanthernet.org.