Pinecrest Panther Encounters

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Three Florida panthers that seemed too indifferent to encounters with humans in the Pinecrest community evidently are getting the message now that people are something to avoid.

The cats – an adult female and her one male and one female kittens – began turning up regularly around a small cluster of homes and cabins known as Pinecrest in the southern Big Cypress National Preserve last September. The community sits astride a ridge the cats use to travel through their range.

Scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS) said that’s normal, since the area is good panther habitat with an ample deer population.

More recently, however, the cats’ behavior indicated they lack the panthers’ natural fear of humans. Scientists believe the cats have encountered people more frequently than other panthers do in other parts of south Florida, and that has led to them not considering people a threat.

Although the three Pinecrest panthers have not acted aggressively toward humans, the fact that they did not flee when they encountered people raised concerns among area residents, particularly among the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida on a reservation four to five miles away.

In February, the three agencies launched a project to condition the cats to avoid humans and to educate Pinecrest area residents on ways to use fencing and landscape changes to make their property less attractive to panthers.

Twice so far, wildlife authorities have seized opportunities to use chase dogs to tree the cats near Pinecrest. They also have pelted the treed cats with harmless but painful slingshot pellets and generally impressed the cats to consider encounters with people to be unpleasant. The most recent chase took place March 22, and authorities plan to continue the practice until the cats become very wary of people.

The panthers probably will continue to move through the Pinecrest area in search of deer and other prey, but they already are reacting to the experiences with dogs and slingshots. The cats have begun fleeing at the sight of humans.

If the panthers demonstrate any behavior that indicates they may be a threat to people, the three wildlife management agencies have assured residents they will move them to another location in the wild or take them into captivity.

Panther researchers believe the kittens will leave their mother and disperse into other parts of the south Florida wilderness to set up their own territories within six months.