Ralph Arwood Photography
The Last Breath of Florida Panther 152
By Deborah Jansen, Big Cypress National Preserve
It was about two o’clock on the afternoon of February 16, 2007. The first image of male Florida panther 152 took our breath away as he gazed down at us from a sprawling laurel oak in Gator Hook Swamp. We didn’t know who his parents were or exactly how old he was, but we estimated him to be approximately four years of age. His first collar was placed on him that day. A year later, this past February (2008), he was re-collared and observed to be in excellent condition, weighing a healthy 132 pounds. Radio signals emitting from his collars over this period have allowed us to learn that he inhabited a 230- square-mile home range covering most of southern Big Cypress.
Occasionally he spent time near Loop Road where we once found the remains of an alligator that he had killed and eaten.
Deb Jansen with alligator killed by FP-152
On October 17, 2008 we were surprised to locate him north of his typical home range. Then concern set in when Field Assistant Annette Johnson continued to find him in the same place on the next two flights. His collar was not beeping in the mortality mode; yet we knew that it is rare for a male panther to remain in the same place for six days. We decided to check on him. So Annette, Ranger Drew Gilmour, and I were dropped off near his location by helicopter. His collar’s signal appeared to fluctuate as we crawled through the dense palmetto and hardwood scrub, so at first we thought he was moving away from us. Then, as we were standing silently in the cypress at the edge of the hammock, we heard a guttural sound. We soon found FP152 lying under a palmetto thicket.
He raised his head slightly only once, but didn’t even move his legs in an attempt to escape. We quietly observed as he took a few more labored breaths, about one minute apart; then silence. His death was recorded: October 22, at 2:30pm.
The observation that his left front leg had swollen to twice its normal size led to our first supposition that he had been bitten by a venomous snake. When we turned him over, however, we saw claw marks across his nose and cheeks. Snake theory abandoned, we now suspected that he had clashed with another male into whose territory he must have trespassed. We laid FP152 in a body bag and floated him through the strand as best we could to reach the helicopter landing site 400 yards away. The necropsy conducted the next day by Dr. Mark Cunningham confirmed that FP152 had died of infection from the severe bite wounds to his leg.
How did it happen that he died as we were standing there? Probably our presence added just enough stress to his system which was so close to death anyway. Witnessing a panther take his last breath? It was a sobering, unforgettable moment.