The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) historically ranged over southeastern North America but by the late 20th Century had been reduced to a single remnant population occupying the remote regions of South Florida. Several management actions beginning in the early 1980s, including genetic restoration,6 increased law enforcement, highway underpasses,2 habitat conservation, prey management, and panther rehabilitation, led to a rebound from as few as 20–304 to at least 87 by 20033.
With a population numbering <100, individual panthers represent a significant proportion of the genetic structure of the population. Therefore, the rescue, treatment, and rehabilitation of individuals unable to survive in the wild may contribute to the genetic diversity of the population if the individual can be returned to the population. Additionally, the maintenance of a captive population also may serve as insurance against a catastrophe extirpating the entire subspecies and provide secondary public education.
The removal of a panther from the wild generally occurs when a panther is too injured, debilitated, or immature (orphaned) to survive in the wild, or if the panther is believed to pose a safety concern to humans. Due to inherent risks in removing panthers for treatment or rehabilitation, panthers are treated in the field if possible, and population managers err towards keeping the panther in the wild if there is a reasonable chance of survival. Risks to removal include escape, treatment or anesthetic complications,1 self-injury (e.g., broken teeth), loss of home range, stress, and habituation to humans. When removing a panther, the primary goal is to return the panther to the wild unless the panther is removed for human safety reasons or if the risk of habituation is too great (e.g., orphaned neonatal kittens).
Injured panthers were stabilized in the field and then transported to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine (Gainesville, FL) or other veterinary facilities or zoos for initial treatment and/or surgery. Panthers received further treatment and rehabilitation at White Oak Conservation Center (Yulee, FL), a private captive wildlife conservation center. Consistent with the stage of recovery (e.g., severity of injuries, presence of external fixation devices, need for direct monitoring, and type and frequency of treatment) panthers were housed in progressively larger enclosures. When completely recovered (or sufficiently mature in the case of orphaned kittens), panthers were moved to a 12-acre wooded enclosure containing free-ranging prey until deemed suitable for release. At all times during recovery contact with humans was minimal. Recovered panthers were immobilized, radio-instrumented, crated, and transported to South Florida for release, usually close to or within their former home range.
Since 1984, 37 panthers have been removed from the wild including 17 injured juveniles/adults (due to vehicular trauma [n=9], capture-related injuries [n=3], intraspecific aggression [n=1], and other injuries [n=4]), eight orphaned kittens, one adult for reproductive evaluation, and one adult due to human safety concerns. In 1991–1992 ten panther kittens were removed as part of a now defunct captive breeding project.5 Eight remained in captivity permanently and two were released in 1997 but died within six months due to suspected toxicosis. As these panthers were not removed for rehabilitation they are not included in this report.
Orphaned neonatal kittens requiring hand-feeding and panthers removed for human safety reasons were permanently maintained in captivity. Due to severity of their injuries, three panthers remained in permanent captivity and six were euthanatized or died during treatment. Of the 25 panthers removed for treatment/rehabilitation 13 (52%) were released back into the wild. One adult female was killed by vehicular collision three days after release and one juvenile male was killed by an adult male 1.5 months after release. However, 11 (85%) went on to establish home ranges and become integrated into the population. Five rehabilitated female panthers went on to produce at least 22 kittens in the wild, and rehabilitated males have sired numerous litters.
By preventing the death of individuals, the rehabilitation and release of orphaned/injured panthers has effectively reduced the mortality rate and improved overall survival. Rehabilitation of an endangered species can be an important population recovery tool.
The authors thank biologists, technicians, keepers, and veterinarians of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lowry Park Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, and White Oak Conservation Center.
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2. Land ED, Lotz M. Wildlife crossing designs and use by Florida panthers and other wildlife in southwest Florida. In: Evink GL, Garrett P, Zeigler D, Berry J, eds. Trends in Addressing Transportation Related Wildlife Mortality. Proceedings of the Transportation Related Wildlife Mortality Seminar. State of Florida Department of Transportation, Environmental Management Office. Tallahassee, FL: 1996.
3. McBride R. The documented panther population (DPP) and its current distribution from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003. Alpine, TX: Livestock Protection Company; 2003:11.
4. Nowak RM, McBride R. Status survey of the Florida panther. Reprinted from the World Wildlife Fund Yearbook, 1973-1974. In: Proceedings of the Florida panther conference. 1973; Orlando, FL: Florida Audubon Society and Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission; Pp. 118.
5. Roelke ME. Florida panther biomedical studies, annual report. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission; 1991:41.
6. Seal US. A plan for genetic restoration and management of the Florida panther (Felis concolor coryi). Report to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, SSC/IUCN. Yulee, FL: White Oak Conservation Center; 1994:23.