Joshua Sokol

Can Humans Coexist With Big Cats?

Florida has already pulled panthers back from the brink of extinction—but to keep them alive, people will have to be comfortable with one showing up on their back porch.  

On a clear evening this past June, in rural Collier County, Florida, an endangered panther crossed a street and was hit by a man driving home. The driver, making out a tawny, crumpled form, called a hotline. The job of retrieving the animal fell to Mark Lotz, a panther biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. Lotz called me to see if I wanted to come.

I had flown into Fort Lauderdale at the beginning of the week, renting a car and heading west across the state through what remains of primordial wetlands. Tall metal fences flanked the road, like a dull, gray hermetic seal meant to keep human traffic in and wildlife out. The fences are just one of many measures to protect fewer than 180 Florida panthers alive today, all of them in the state’s southern tip.

Many more people love these rare, elusive creatures than have ever seen one. Schoolchildren voted it Florida’s official state animal, and the Miami area’s NHL team is the Florida Panthers.

A population this size will birth between 60 and 110 kittens each year. But recently, adult panthers have been dying in droves: most after being hit by a car on unfenced roads, occasionally after being mauled by another panther in a territorial skirmish. In 2013, 20 of the endangered cats were killed; then 33 the next year; then 43 in 2015 and 2016.

Reaching Florida’s Gulf Coast, I pulled into a motel north of Naples, feeling guilty for my opportunism. I would stay within a short drive of panther country for a week. At 43 dead a year, something bad should happen to a panther every eight or nine days, although at the time the panthers were on a lucky streak verging on three weeks.

By Thursday, still nothing—then Lotz’s call. “Word I got right now is it’s injured and still alive,” he said, “but usually they’re dead by the time I get there.” I ran to my rental car.

* * *

The story that drew me down to Florida is a classic Anthropocene motif. Thanks to people, a charismatic species starts vanishing from its range, lingering only in certain areas before fading there, too. Extinction looms, until conservationists make a concerted effort to save it. And then—well, it’s not clear what happens next.

The first humans to reach North America found a continent crawling with terrifying big cats: an American cheetah, an American lion (bigger than those in Africa today), and the saber-toothed tiger. But at the end of the Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago, they all vanished along with the bulk of New World megafauna. Nobody knows why, exactly. Maybe it was climate change, or maybe the direct and indirect consequences of hunting.

By the time Europeans arrived, the only big feline stalking most of North America was the puma, an animal that goes by many other regional names—panther, cougar, mountain lion, catamount. Pumas had emerged in the Brazilian highlands some 300,000 years ago, crossing northward through Central America. In that end-Pleistocene extinction, they were wiped out in North America, genetic evidence suggests. So they did it all over again, crossing back from South America and eventually colonizing 100 degrees of latitude from Patagonia to Yukon.

Modernity has brought them to another low ebb. While pumas likely won’t vanish from the Earth, they have already begun to go extinct at the regional level.  The last confirmed one in Vermont was killed in 1881; in Tennessee 1930; in New Brunswick, 1932; in Maine, 1938. In the American West, where bounty programs encouraged puma hunting until the 1960s, they have persisted, even recovering some in the last few decades. But panthers, shielded from the march of civilization by the swampy intractability of South Florida, are the only breeding pumas left in eastern North America.

For a while, it looked like the Florida panthers too would disappear. Cut off from other pumas, the population hovered around 20 inbred cats. All things being equal, one 1992 study warned, they would be extinct as early as 2016. But in 1995, eight female pumas were shipped in from Texas to enrich the gene pool. Genetic disorders all but disappeared, and by 2003, the panther count had rocketed to around 75 and rising.

Meanwhile, southwest Florida’s human population has grown at one of the fastest rates in the nation, and it shows no sign of stopping. By 2040, the same few counties that host panthers will be home to 600,000 more people, according to projections.

A patchwork of parks have been set aside for panthers. The species is a poster child for entire ecosystems that include hundreds of other, less-beloved creatures. But they have already spread beyond the confines of parks, and into ranches, orange groves, and housing developments. A spiderweb of roads around new suburbs has sliced through their habitat, which is why there are so many road kills.

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.

* * *

When I pulled up to the accident site, the red hazard lights of Fish and Wildife trucks lights were pulsing through the rural intersection like a dim heartbeat. I got out, joining Lotz, a few other officers, a local cop, maybe a thousand mosquitoes, some loud but invisible frogs, and, according to one of the officers, fire ant nests and a water moccasin lurking in the grass next to the road. No panther, though. From the street I could see Lotz’s flashlight beam swiveling, searching through the overgrown lot at the corner of Oil Well and Camp Keais Roads.

(Joshua Sokol)

In their more pristine state, the ecosystems of flat, wet southwestern Florida are separated by only a few inches of elevation. At the bottom are cypress swamps, where bell-bottomed trees rest in standing water alongside orchids and air plants. For a panther, it’s a good place to find water and wait out the hottest part of the day. A little higher are pine flatwoods, where a deer might pause to nibble on the shrubs between trees and a panther, springing from the underbrush, might then nibble on the deer. Higher still, a panther might make a den in a hardwood hammock, under a thicket of saw palmetto.

According to panther biologists, it’s not just the existence of these different habitats that panthers really like, but the interfaces between them, the edges, where an animal can follow contours and cross back and forth to meet different needs.

This particular interface clearly wasn’t what panther biologists had in mind. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see that on one side was a large parking lot, fronted by a sign for Pacific Tomato Growers, a farm. On the other side, a big billboard announced Maple Ridge, a subdivision up the road, offering 14 designer models in a previously wild slice of Collier County.

Taking a break, Lotz came to the street to meet me. “By the time we got here, the cat had gotten up and walked off,” he told me. “The guy that hit it actually went home, and realized his headlight was busted out, so he came back—”

“Hey! I got it over here,” one of the officers yelled.  “I walked right past it.”

I followed Lotz as he waded through the brush for a look. At the intersection, just a few feet from the sign advertising the new subdivision, an officer put his boot down on a low, rusty barbed-wire fence so we could climb over. He pointed ahead, and Lotz advanced a few more steps. I waited behind, going up on tiptoes to see over a clump of reeds.

Sure enough, it was there—maybe three times the size of a house cat, ears perked up, cowering under vegetation. Its wide eyes blinked back at us. “He’s kinda corralled here, so let’s just not get any closer,” Lotz said. The plan, he explained, was to keep the situation calm, tranquilize the panther, and then get it to a clinic to assess the extent of its injuries. “If he does run, keep an eye on him,” he said to the other Fish and Wildlife officers. “Don’t chase him, ’cause that will push him, but just make sure he doesn’t go across the road.”

Lotz went to his truck to mix sedative for a dart, then returned, advancing through the brush, and then approached it head-on, with a lightweight pressure gun outstretched. From a few feet away, he fired with a deep whumpf, noting the time out loud.

It didn’t run. “Stay calm,” Lotz said. “It’ll take about 10 minutes or so for it to take effect.” We stood there sharing small talk, with mosquitoes devouring us from the top down and ants trying to meet them in the middle, until it stopped moving. Then, when the cat collapsed, Lotz picked it up—“lot smaller than I thought he was”—and passed it, legs and paws and tail flopping, back across the fence to another Fish and Wildlife officer, who rested it on a lowered truck tailgate for examination.

“Female,” Lotz said, checking. “About six months or so; doesn’t even have its adult teeth yet.” After an inspection, Lotz put in drops to keep her eyes lubricated, their lids lolled open from the drugs. Then he lifted her into the passenger seat of his truck and rushed her back to a specialty animal hospital in Naples. I followed in the rental car.

* * *

The way to prevent panther roadkill is straightforward on paper. Find where wild Florida is leaking into human Florida, and plug the hole. The intersection I visited, like every other panther crash site going back decades, was recorded, as are the meanderings of panthers that have been fitted with radio collars. All together, the data allows conservationists to reconstruct where the now-sprawling panther population is intersecting with dangerous stretches of road, and then try to funnel them underneath instead.

But it’s not an exact science, according to Brent Setchell and Nicole Monies, two engineers with the Florida Department of Transportation who are working on the problem. I went on a ride with Setchell, an hour’s drive north of the accident site. Fences walled us in here, too. Wildlife were supposed to cross underneath the roads, on a concrete bank that ran next to a canal.

Crossings like this are expensive, Setchell explained. “You need a five to six-foot vertical clearance for the head room to get under the bridge, and you have to have that above the water line to provide that comfortable pathway,” he said. “You gotta keep their feet dry.” A single structure built to those specifications might cost $1.5 million. That makes choosing where to put a crossing crucial, even with incomplete data. And even then, I soon learned, the passageway can by undermined by just one uncooperative neighbor.

We drove up on grass alongside the road to a gate, which Setchell unlocked, letting us beyond the fences. Then we crossed underneath the road, to where the path met private land, where we met a surprise: a six-foot tall fence erected by the landowner, severing the putative artery for wildlife. Probably to keep livestock in, Setchell speculated. “Yeah, this isn’t what we had we had in mind,” he said, chuckling, as we watched a deer wade in the canal through the links of a fence it probably couldn’t hop.

* * *

Her breath had been crackly, gurgling in the front seat on the way over, Lotz said. Pumas are the largest cats that can purr, but this wasn’t the sound of a comfortable kitten.

I had fallen behind as Lotz raced to the hospital, so by the time I parked at the animal hospital, everyone else was inside. A young veterinary nurse had covered the 43.4-pound cat with a blanket for warmth in the air-conditioned room, and had fitted an oxygen mask over her face, under which she shifted, fidgeting as the tranquilizer slowly wore off.  Standing there, it would have been easy to reach out and feel the fur on the back of her neck. No one would have objected. But it felt wrong, profane. I kept deciding not to.

Beside the unknown extent of her injuries, Lotz said, the other worrying thing was that she looked too young to fend for herself in the wild. Maybe she could catch rabbits, but she had neither the physical tools nor the training yet to hunt the larger quarry panthers depend on, like deer. There had been another, bigger set of footprints near the intersection, presumably belonging to her mother, who might stick around the area for a day or two, searching, but would then give up and move on. To prevent that, the best option would be re-release her near the crash site as soon as possible.

Once an X-ray had come through, the emergency vet, a stocky, muscular guy named Mark Garny, called us in to his office. “Could be worse, could be a little better. Obviously, as you know, we get them in worse shape than this.” On his computer screen, he pointed out a chipped area in her hips. “In a young pet like—” he corrected himself “—a young animal like this, it’s possible that would callus in,” Garny said. “It’s quite possible she could heal up without anything further.”

He had first thought the X-ray showed rib fractures, too, but told us they were probably just the remains of an earlier meal—“obviously these guys eat so much bone,” he said. Most worrying was a pulmonary contusion from the crash, which had left blood leaking into her lungs. That’s why she was having difficulty breathing, and also why she wouldn’t be able to join her mother tonight, or in the next few days, Garny said.

(Joshua Sokol)

Instead of rejoining her mother, she would go upstate, to a rehab facility near Jacksonville, Florida where she would spend the next 6 to 8 months healing, growing, and eventually learning to hunt game released into her pen. That wasn’t such a bad consolation prize, Lotz said, with a note of pride: all of the female panthers previously rehabbed and released back into the wild had gone on to bear kittens.

It was 2 a.m. when we left Garny’s office. In the adjacent room, the veterinary nurses had set up a crate for the panther to sleep in overnight. To make her comfortable, they were pumping in oxygen. In another act of kindness, one of the nurses had put down some bedding. Garny stooped down to grab the blankets away and shook his head, smiling. “They think she’s a big kitty,” he said. “She would tear that to shreds.”

* * *

Local ranchers know a thing or two about a panther’s propensity for shredding. Top predators, they are athletic enough to jump 15 feet straight up, agile enough to run down dozens of different species, and fond of dispatching victims with a hard bite to the neck. So besides retrieving dead or wounded panthers, the state Fish and Wildlife office in Naples also responds to another kind of incident that is becoming more frequent. “It starts off sort of the same way,” said Darrel Land, who leads the panther team Lotz works on. First there’s a call or an email. Then there’s a crime scene investigation.

The most common complaint is that a panther has killed a goat. Also common are calves, which ranchers report from rural areas, and which represent a monetary loss. “I’ll go out there,” Lotz said. “First order of business is to determine if a panther was actually involved, because we’ve got a lot of things out here that kill goats and chickens and whatever kind of hobby livestock people might have. We’ve got bears and coyotes and bobcats, dogs.”

If the scene and victim point to a panther, Lotz tries to glean what he can about the size of the animal, and whether it was traveling alone or in a group. “Some people are really angry that a panther killed something; others are more accepting. They kind of understand that they are living in the area where panthers live and this kind of thing will happen from time to time,” he said. If pet owners want help building an outdoor pen, Lotz introduces them to Defenders of Wildlife or the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, two organizations that will bear some of the cost of construction.

“The level of human acceptance or social tolerance is the biggest hurdle for panther recovery,” says David Shindle, who formerly had Land’s job at the state level and now heads panther recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Those folks that live with panthers—that provide habitat for cats but also make their living on the same, these working ranches—it’s safe to say that most of them feel that they’ve had their fill.”

In the American west, mountain lions occasionally attack people, but there’s never been a recorded instance of a Florida panther hurting a person. As a matter of statistics, though, as the human and panther populations increase and overlap, there’s a good chance it will happen. At the same time, the predatory nature of panthers brings benefits. They’ve devoured most of the feral, invasive hogs that used to be ubiquitous in the region.

And they might even save human lives. People die in car crashes with deer, which are more likely because deer are overpopulated in the absence of their historic predators. Bring the predators back to eat the deer, the logic goes, and you get fewer deadly crashes. One recent study calculated that the return of pumas to the eastern U.S. could prevent 155 deaths and 21,400 injuries over the next three decades.

(Joshua Sokol)

That abstract argument can only do so much to comfort people who have lost beloved animals to panthers, though. On the list of known fatalities, in addition to goats, calves, and sheep, are more exotic examples. Two Chihuahuas were killed in 2016, and one the year before. Also on the list are a Shetland pony, a miniature donkey, and a mute swan.

I asked Lotz and Land about whether any of the more unusual prey had been memorable. “The wallaby,” Lotz said. “And the swan was pretty amazing. Just because the amount of feathers that were all over the place, it looked like snow on the ground. Just feathers everywhere.”

“Pillow fight!” Land said.

* * *

Back in the 1920s, southwest Florida and its panthers were nigh inaccessible. Then Barron Collier, a New York advertising magnate, financed the completion of the Tamiami Trail, the first highway west from Miami. In exchange, the state legislature carved out a chunk of neighboring Lee County and named it after Collier.

Massive development followed and today, Collier County is perhaps ground zero for the environmental conflicts set in motion by the highway. Now, nine landowners—including two separate branches of the Collier family—are proposing a development plan that may determine the final fate of Florida panthers.

I met representatives of two of those landowners, Tom Jones and Garret Wallace. Wallace represents Alico, an agribusiness that grows oranges and ranches cattle throughout the state. Jones came from Barron Collier Real Estate.

Rather than sell off pieces of Collier County piece by piece, the group wants to set aside 45,000 acres for development. Since that will hurt panthers and a secondary cast of other endangered critters—the Florida scrub-jay, the Florida bonneted bat, wood storks, the eastern indigo snake, etc.—they will also conserve 152,000 acres of land in perpetuity.

The conserved land would bridge between the Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the south and Okaloacoochee Slough, a state park, to the north, offering panthers a wide migratory path. That’s the crucial point: even as they recover, the cats remain trapped below the Caloosahatchee River, a horizontal boundary separating south and central Florida. Helping them establish at least one viable population north of the river is perhaps the central goal of panther conservation. The plan is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

“In all candor, as a landowner, we could do whatever the existing regulations allow,” Wallace told me. But both men argued that the voluntary participation of landowners could offer a blueprint for the conservation of private land throughout the state. And if the plan failed, they insinuated, well, that wouldn’t bode well for future cooperation. “Why would property owners with cattle north of the river willingly want to accept panthers,” Jones told me, “if you’re going to have to deal with the same things that we’re having to deal with, with minimal help from anyone?”

This past April, their plan was panned at a public meeting in Naples. Speaker after speaker, allotted two minutes each, came forward to complain about greed, money, water security, fracking, and above all the intolerability of further harm to native species. Representatives from conservation groups outlined specifics points of disagreement with the plan. And yet many of the panther conservationists I spoke to, although they intend to fight hard on the specifics of the deal, think this might be the way to go.

“For me it’s very exciting. For other folks, they think it’s the end of the world,” Nancy Payton, who has been collaborating with the landowners as a field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, told me.

Others can’t bear to give up any more wild ground in South Florida. “[It] would do more harm than good,” said Karen Dywer, an activist who spoke up at the Naples meeting.  “We don’t want a city the size of New York rising to the east of us, depleting our water supplies, crowding our roads, jeopardizing our wildlife, and paving on our paradise.”

* * *

The struggle over southwest Florida is part of a much larger trend. Today, pumas are trying one last time to conquer North America. Since the 1990s, they have been spreading out from reservoirs in the West, into toeholds like northwestern Nebraska, and beyond. One male walked 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills to Greenwich, Connecticut -- before he was hit and killed by a car.

Florida’s panthers are also dispersing into land they haven’t occupied since the 1970s. In November 2016, Lotz’s boss Darrel Land went public with firm evidence that first female Florida panther had made it north of the Caloosahatchee River. Perhaps she could be the matriarch of that long-awaited separate breeding population.

Up close, though, that progress is increasingly complicated by tragedies and near misses. On the day after Lotz rescued the kitten, I called him for an update. “Bottom line, the cat’s stable. Survived the night, came out of anesthesia just fine,” Lotz told me. The pelvic trauma was not a weight-bearing part of her hip, so she would heal up. As we spoke, she was on the way up to the White Oak Conservation Center, the rehab facility in the northeast corner of the state.

I weighed visiting her there, about six hours away, before leaving the state. Lotz suggested an easier option. Uno, a Florida panther 15 minutes away at the Naples Zoo, had been through a parallel ordeal. When I drove over to see him the next day, Uno was lying in a favorite corner of his habitat. A volunteer tried to summon him, but he just yawned, refusing to come over, like a stubborn 130-pound housecat.

Uno, a panther left blinded by a shotgun blast, now lives at the Naples Zoo in Florida.
(Joshua Sokol)

Uno’s right eye is a sunken, reddish pit, and his left is bluish-white. In the summer of 2014, he was blinded by a shotgun blast. Another cluster of pellets was found in his hindquarters from a second shot, perhaps after he turned to run away. Uno’s shooter still hasn’t been indentified, and for good reason: the federal government could fine them up to $100,000 or imprison them for up to a year.

Unable to hunt, Uno wasted away. He was found on a berm by the side of the road, after a driver slowed down to look and someone else rear-ended her. Eventually, as it usually does, the call came in to Lotz. When Fish and Wildlife officers arrived, emergency vehicles had already passed through to tend to the car accident. The panther was still just lying there, blind and emaciated. But he was remarkably mellow, Lotz said. Some adult panthers hate cages so much they’ll break their teeth trying to escape. Uno, by contrast, was a perfect candidate for captivity.

I stood outside of Uno’s enclosure talking to Tim Tetzlaff, the zoo’s director of conservation. “If you see him bump into something, you win the prize, because it just doesn’t happen,” Tetzlaff told me.  “And he figured out the pool, finally. There were a few times where he walked up and just put his paw in, shook the water off, and went the other direction.” Now, Uno will go into the shallow pool with a ball and bat it around, splashing. He’s even killed two squirrels that strayed into his enclosure.

Tetzlaff told me that his goal was to present Uno as a reality of living in panther country, where interspecies interactions are increasingly fraught, without blaming anyone in particular. He stressed that it wasn’t a black and white situation. Hunters don’t like that panthers might be scaring away deer. Ranchers don’t like that a panther can kill a calf and get away with it. Landowners don’t like that a creature they might see on their property only a few times a year limits what they can do with their land. Environmentalists, obviously, feel differently.

“The people making comments in the meetings, the ranchers standing up, the panther biologists, the commissioners, there’s nobody out there who’s all the way right or all the way wrong about this issue,” Tetzlaff said. “There’s not an obvious villain to this story. It’s the circumstances of the 21st century.”

Watching Uno lounge around, the panther kitten Lotz had saved seemed like another happy ending, albeit another story proving the rule of fraught panther-human contact. Tetzlaff, who already knew of the rescue from social media and list serves, oohed and aahed over the pictures of her on my phone.

But that night, Tetzlaff invited me to a fundraiser for the zoo’s giraffes at a bar in Naples. Mark Lotz was there, and he walked over to us, his expression calm, practical. He had something to say about our panther kitten. The lung contusion from the crash had been worse than we thought, persisting after she arrived at the conservation facility.

“She died this morning,” he said.