Ralph Arwood Photography
February 22, 2008
It is six am and John Kellam, the biology technician at Big Cypress National Preserve and I are loading the trucks and swamp buggies for the day's panther hunt. This is our 17th day of hunting this year. The eighteen-hour days are starting to take their toll. We go through a mental checklist, capture net, crash bag, medical bag, back up medical supplies, dart gun. Everything must be ready when we locate a panther. In the middle of the swamp is not the time to realize that you do not have the supplies that you need to safely capture a panther.
Tracking and capturing panthers is both art and science. In the Big Cypress National Preserve, the conditions for a safe and successful hunt only occur for about a month each year. For us to find signs and tracks of the cats and for the dogs to be able to follow their scent, the water levels need to be low. When there is a slow moving sheet of water over the land, the footprints and scent trails are washed away. Too much water also poses a risk of drowning to a panther that is trying to get away from us as the anesthesia is taking effect. In most years the water levels are safe by February and the air is still cool enough that the panther will not over heat during the chase, by the middle of March, it is often too hot to hunt.
Each day we start out with a plan for the day's hunt. The swamp and the panthers never seem to follow the plan, but it gives us someplace to start. The plan for today was to look for Florida Panther #93 and her one year old offspring. FP-93 is nine years old. She is probably the best panther mother in Big Cypress. Her father is FP-79, aka “Don Juan” because of the number of kittens he has sired. He was the dominant male in Big Cypress for many years. Her mother was TX-107, one of the Texas cats brought in as part of the genetics restoration project. FP-93 has had four litters totaling 13 kittens that we know of and likely had a fifth litter in 2005 at a time when her tracking collar was not working.
We last saw FP-93 a year ago February. It was time to change her collar before the battery ran out. We tracked FP-93 to an accessible area, but once she was treed she appeared to be pregnant. Not wanting to risk endangering her offspring we did not capture her. By the end of February FP-93 had settled down to give birth. In March we went into the den site and found three healthy kittens, two sons and a daughter.
It is part of our protocol not to capture females that are pregnant or caring for young kittens. We do not want to risk losing the pregnancy or separating the kittens from their mother. In June the battery in FP-93’s collar ran out. While we had not been able to follow FP-93 and her family for the last seven months we knew her home range from all of the data that had been collected while her collar was working. In August by chance they had been spotted from the tracking airplane while they crossing a wet prairie.
Our plan for today’s hunt was for Houndsman Rocky McBride and his four tracking dogs, Chewy, Noonie, Riley, and Newt to work their way down from the north end of FP-93’s home range while the rest of the team worked our way in from the west. We would be looking for any signs of the cats. If fresh signs were found the dogs would then be used to follow and tree the panther.
Shortly after sunrise we started hunting. Dennis Giardina and I started down Concho Billy Trail on all terrain vehicles and the rest of the team followed on the swamp buggy. Being lower to the ground and more maneuverable than the swamp buggy the ATVs are a good way to look for signs and tracks of panthers. The first several miles of Concho Billy Trail were not very good for tracking. Much of the trail was still under water and the parts that were dry were very rocky and did not show any footprints. About four miles down the trail we entered an area with more sand and drying puddles of water. The wet sand on either end of the puddles was excellent for recording footprints.
As we came around a bend in the road we came to an area of wet sand just before a puddle that extended for about thirty feet down the trail. When we slowed to study this area for tracks, we noticed two young panthers standing at the other end of the puddle watching us. As young cats tend to be, they were very curious and had stopped to study us. As the swamp buggy came up behind us caution overcame their curiosity and they moved off into the palmetto. But shortly thereafter one reappeared about thirty feet further down the trail and stood watching us partly hidden by the palmetto.
The second cat then reappeared about 100 yards down the trail. He sat in the middle of the trail and watched us for a long time.
In the 30 years that scientists have been hunting the panthers in Big Cypress this is only the second time that we have seen panthers that had not been tracked by the dogs. Watching the two cats was mesmerizing. As our excitement and euphoria began to clear, we quickly called Rocky McBride on the radio and told him of our find. Rocky was only a short distance north of us. Since he had not seen any signs of panthers, the dogs were still ridding on his buggy and he could quickly join us. By the time Rocky and the dogs arrived the panthers had again moved off into the palmetto, but had not had time to go very far.
Even before the dogs were released, they could smell the cats. They are trained to only chase cats. Their special ability has taken them all over the world. They have tracked Siberian Tigers in Russia and Jaguars in South America. Their excitement with the fresh smell of panther in the air was uncontainable. It seems that there is nothing they enjoy more than a good cat chase.
After the dogs were released thing were a bit of a blur. For a few minutes there seemed to be panthers and dogs everywhere. As the dust cleared it looked like there had been at least three panthers in the area. We did not see a collar on any of them. When the chase ended the dogs had two panthers treed. One was a young male in a pine tree north of the trail the other was a young male in a cypress tree south of the trail.
With the panther up the pine tree, the dog that had been chasing him apparently decided that it would be more fun to join his friends who were still chasing the other cats. To keep this panther from getting away, Dennis Giardina and I quickly got under the tree to keep him from coming down. While we were guarding this panther, the team biologist Deborah Jansen and Rocky McBride wadded out to the cypress tree were the other panther was treed. Because the panther was high in the tree and the water around it was deep, they did not feel that it was a safe location for a capture. Bringing the dogs out with them; they rejoined the rest of the team preparing to capture the panther in the pine tree.
When a panther up a tree is darted and sedated, one of several things can happen. Sometime the panther will come out of the tree and try to get away. The medications usually take about ten minutes to put the panther to sleep. When they run, sometimes they will climb another tree before they fall asleep. If the panther comes out of the tree, we have to follow them to be sure that they are not injured falling out of the second tree or fall asleep in a wet area and drown. Sometimes the panther will climb higher in the tree after it is darted. If the panther stays in the tree after it is darted, it will sometimes fall out of the tree as it goes to sleep. When they fall out of the tree we need to break their fall to prevent injuries. Other times the panther will be supported by the tree branches and not fall out of the tree. When this happens somebody has to climb the tree and lower the panther down on a rope.
This panther was about thirty feet up a fifty-foot tall pine tree. He appeared to weigh about seventy pounds. At that height and weight we could safely catch him in out capture net if he fell out of the tree. The net is held up like a fireman’s net and used to break the fall. However if he climbed higher in the tree before he fell, he could be injured by the fall. For added safety before darting the panther we inflated the crash bag. The crash bag is a large air filed mattress that is placed under the capture net to further break the fall.
Rocky McBride was able to dart the panther without difficulty. When the dart hit the panther he climbed about five feet higher in the tree and then settled down. At first it looked like he would fall out of the tree when he fell asleep. As he started to get sleepy the dewclaw on his right front paw hooked into the trunk of the pine tree. This was just enough to prevent him from falling out of the tree.
With the panther asleep in the tree it was time to go up and get him. The job of tree climber takes some special skills. You need to be able to go quickly and safely up almost any tree. You need to be strong enough to handle an animal that weights as much as 150 pounds. Sometimes you get up there and find a panther that is not completely asleep and is not willing to share his tree with you. The job of tree climber on our team falls to Dennis Giardina.
Dennis Giardina and FP-163
As Dennis approached the panther and was getting ready to put a rope around him, the dewclaw came unhooked from the tree and the panther started to fall away from the capture net and crash bag. Fortunately Dennis was able to catch the panther and guide his fall into the net and crash bag. With the panther safely on the ground the rest of the team went to work.
The panther was quickly assessed to be sure his airway was open and he was breathing. His vital signs were checked while an intravenous line was started to continue his sedation. After assuring that he was stable a complete physical examination was done. He appeared to be a healthy one-year-old male without injuries or genetic abnormalities. A scan of the back of his neck revealed a transponder that identified him as FP-93’s kitten K-227, one of the kittens we had handled at the den a year ago.
K-227 in front of his sister K-228
While blood was drawn and tissue samples were taken for DNA analysis he was fitted with a tracking collar. At seventy-one pounds he is a healthy size for his age. Because he will continue to grow and may double in size his tracking collar was fitted so that he would have room to grow. With placement of the collar K-227 became the 163rd Florida Panther to be followed with a tracking collar. Along with the collar comes a name change to FP-163.
After completing the workup and placement of the tracking collar the team veterinarian, Kevin Castle stayed with FP-163 until he had recovered from the anesthesia.
Kevin Castle, DVM and FP-163
After he woke up, FP-163 apparently was able to pull the collar off. We found it about 300 yards from the capture site the next day.
On November 10, 2010 FP-163 was recaptured by the FWC team in the Big Cypress Addition Lands. At that time he was a healthy 137 lbs. You can read Dennis Giardina’s article on both of FP-163’s captures here.
On April 25, 2014 FP-163 was hit by a car on County Line Road in Collier County and died from his injuries. He was a healthy 134 lbs at the time of his death.