Two Panther Kittens Rescued

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Two Florida panther kittens are safe in captivity after their mother apparently died in a recent fight with another panther over feeding rights to a white-tailed deer carcass. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) wildlife biologists rescued the kittens and placed them in an unnamed, secluded facility that specializes in caring for endangered species.

Biologists found the kittens Oct. 23 after tracking them with dogs, treeing them and tranquilizing them, according to Darrell Land, who heads the FWC panther research team based in Naples. The cats will remain in the private rehabilitation facility in northern Florida for six months or until big enough to return to the wild with a better chance at survival.

Land said researchers had captured the kittens' mother and equipped her with a radio collar at the age of two in 1999. The adult panther, designated FP78, gave birth to a litter of four kittens last April. Radio tracking documented the panther's range was almost entirely within the federal Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

FWC biologists were flying a routine monitoring flight Oct. 18 when they detected a mortality signal from FP78's radio collar. Roy McBride, a professional hunter and tracker who works with the FWC, found the adult cat's carcass shortly afterward. Puncture wounds and a crushed skull indicated FP78 had died in a fight with another panther.

"This is the third case of what appears to be male aggression against female panthers with kittens this year," Land said. "However, no sign of kittens was found in the areas near where the other females were attacked and killed. We believed that at least one of the four kittens born in April was still with FP78 at the time of her death. We decided to try to rescue the kittens and return them to the wild when they are old enough to survive without their mother's protection."

Biologist David Shindle placed a motion-activated camera near the deer carcass, which later documented the return of both kittens to the kill site. Although researchers were fairly certain they'd find one kitten, the presence of the second kitten was an unexpected bonus.

The male kitten weighed 27 pounds, and the female weighed 25 pounds. Land said the kittens will live in a large enclosure with minimal human contact. Their keepers will provide them with live prey to help them hone their natural hunting instincts and grow larger. They should weigh between 60 and 70 pounds in about six months and be ready for release then, he said.

Land believes there are fewer than 100 adult Florida panthers living primarily in Collier and Hendry counties of southwest Florida.

Killing of one panther by another in territorial or other types of disputes is a natural phenomenon, Land said. The greater threat to the panther's survival remains human population growth, development, shrinking wildlife habitat, more roads and heavier traffic flow resulting in road-killed panthers, he said.

"The Florida panther is a wilderness animal," he said. "The less real wilderness we have here in Florida the fewer panthers will survive."