Our State Animal
Panthers (Puma concolor coryi) once ranged as far north as the Carolinas and as far west as the Texas/Louisiana border, but hunting and human development reduced their numbers to the point where the Department of the Interior listed the Florida panther as an endangered species in 1967. By the 1990s, only 20-30 panthers remained living in the wild, and only here in SW Florida.
This genetic bottleneck caused a decline in birth rates, and those that were born exhibited birth defects such as cowlicked fur, kinked tails, and even holes in their hearts. Biologists captured and collared as many of the panthers as they could find and learned all they could about panther behavior and range. A decision was made in the mid-90s to bring 8 female Texas “cougars” to breed with the male Florida panthers. This subspecies of puma would have been a natural breeding partner for panthers since they shared habitat and range on the Texas/Louisiana border. Five females were released into the wild, three were in captive breeding programs. The program was successful and after producing litters, adding up to 20 healthy kittens, the female Texas cougars were returned to Texas. Before this program, female panthers averaged only one kitten per litter, but now they average three kittens per litter!
The last panther census conducted in 2017 concluded that there are roughly 120-230 adult panthers in Florida. Why the large gap? 120 is the number of visually confirmed adult individuals. 230 is the largest number of adult individual panthers possible based on telemetry of panther tracks and how far a panther can travel in a day. If two sets of tracks are found further away than a panther can travel in one day, it is scientifically reasonable to assume it is two different panthers.
There is still a long road to recovery for the Florida panther. In order for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to de-list the panther, there must be three separate populations of roughly 230 each, throughout the state. Males have ventured as far north as Alabama and Florida, but females have stayed here in SW Florida. They tend to pick a home range close to their mother.
Recent video footage shows some of the first females with kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River, but in order for panthers to expand, there needs to be land. With so much human land development and highways, it is difficult to find a safe place to be a panther.
Florida panthers have short, light brown or tawny-colored fur and a white muzzle, chest, and stomach. They have long round tails nearly two-thirds the length of their head and body that tend to be darkly colored at the tip. Kittens are born spotted with blue eyes to help them hide in the undergrowth. As they get older their spots fade and their eyes turn golden yellow. Kittens will stay with their mother until they are 1.5 or 2 years old.
Females are about 6 feet from the tip of their nose to the end of their tail and the tail is about 1/3 of their body length. Males measure nearly 7 feet long from the tip of their nose to the end of their tail. A male panther can weigh up to 150 pounds, but that is a BIG male panther. Females are much smaller weighing 70-75 pounds.
Black panthers - There is no such thing as a black panther! The black coat is caused by melanism and is a genetic mutation only found in cat species that are spotted as adults. This often occurs in jaguars (like the one seen here) or leopards, though it has been found to occur in bobcats and even cheetahs. You can still see the spots in the right light.
Panthers live in prides - Panthers are solitary animals and do not live in packs or prides like lions. If you see more than one panther together, it is either a breeding pair or a mom with a bunch of teenaged kittens.
Panthers live in trees - A panther will climb a tree if it is scared or being chased (often by a dog) but they do not live in trees. This is a defense mechanism evolved from living alongside wolves.
If you Encounter a Panther
There are no confirmed cases of a panther attacking a human in Florida. However, you may run into one while hiking or even on your own property. Below is the recommended action to take from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Make yourself appear larger - Open your jacket, raise your arms, throw stones, branches, etc. without turning away or crouching down. Wave raised arms slowly, and speak slowly in a loud firm voice. This communicates that you are not prey, but may actually be a danger to it.
Avoid crouching or bending over - This makes you look smaller, resembling a prey-sized animal. If you have children or pets with you, pull them close to you or pick them up.
Do not run - Running may stimulate the panther's instinct to chase. Stand and face the animal while making eye contact.
Give the panther space - Most Florida panthers will avoid confrontation so make sure they have a way to escape and are not trapped.
If attacked, fight back - While there has never been a confirmed panther attack in Florida, in western states people have fought back successfully using rocks, sticks, jackets, and even their bare hands.