When a female panther’s petite pawprint was spotted north of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River in the fall, the discovery made a splash among conservationists eager to see the endangered animals mate and expand their range.
One can only imagine the excitement among the male panthers in the neighborhood. For more than four decades, only males had been seen there. The area north of the river had been total testosterone territory, a dating desert. Establishing a breeding population in the region is a huge goal in panther conservationists’ quest to grow the population from its current size of 100 to 200 cats.
It now appears some panther helped make that goal seem more attainable — by winning the contest for the river-crossing female’s affections. The proof? Cute, spotted kittens.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Monday that its north-of-the-river trail cameras had captured images this month of a nursing mother and at least two kittens. The babies are presumed to be the previously detected female’s offspring, the commission said.
“For many years, the Caloosahatchee River has appeared to be a major obstacle to northward movement of female panthers,” Darrell Land, the commission’s panther team leader, said in a statement. “This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally.”
The new photos show the cats lurking through lush, palm-tree-dotted lands, the kind of terrain that might seem perfect for panthers, which are known as pumas, cougars or mountain lions in other parts of the country. But Florida is no panther paradise. It has highways where panthers get mowed down, and private lands where ranchers aren’t excited to welcome apex predators, though many are working with the wildlife commission to establish panther-friendly habitat.
As Joshua Sokol wrote in the Atlantic earlier this month:
Florida faces a challenge. It has already pulled panthers back from the brink of immediate extinction. But to really preserve them, it needs to knit together enough public and private territory to sustain their population, and it needs to keep them off the roads. And somehow, Floridians need to accept a large predator not just as a hockey team mascot but as something you might find on your back porch.
The Florida wildlife commission made clear in its statement that it’s aware of the need to get locals as excited about — or, at least, tolerant of — the kittens as conservationists are.
“This is good news for panther recovery,” said Larry Williams, state supervisor of ecological services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And, he added: “The service is committed to working with landowners to make panthers and private land ownership compatible.”
Here’s another sequence of the family, taken on March 15. It shows the mother panther looking at the camera, then back toward her kittens, then two kittens following her one-by-one.