St. Petersburg Times - St. Petersburg, Fla.




Apr 22, 2007




Copyright Times Publishing Co. Apr 22, 2007

Man moved in on the Florida panther's habitat. But big cats don't care about property lines. Whose home is it, anyway?

About a year ago, the old man's chickens began disappearing during the night. At first he suspected bears. Then his cat, Homer, vanished, followed by a goose. If this kept up he'd run out of animals.

Calvin Hodges is 80, a native Floridian. Thirty years ago he built a house with his own hands in the Big Cypress National Preserve. He grew his own food, raised livestock and hunted deer. Over decades he got used to the black bears.

"Even if I don't see them, I can smell them," he said. "They really stink."

It wasn't bears this time. Hodges, infirm and in a wheelchair, recognized cat tracks and summoned the authorities.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told him to protect his animals during Florida panther hunting hours between dusk and dawn. Hodges promised to keep his dog, Lilly, inside after dark. He got his son to fortify the chicken coop with electric wire.

A few nights later, a wildlife officer on panther patrol was staking out the old man's house. The officer watched a panther creep into the yard. He watched as the panther jumped onto a rain barrel and peered into the sleeping house through the porch screen. Then he watched as the panther jumped down and attacked the chicken coop.

The jolt from the electrified wire knocked the cat backward. The animal fled past the clothesline into the brush.

It was a rare bad night for the panther known as Don Juan.

- - -

Florida panthers, which measure about 7 feet long from nose to tail and weigh up to 150 pounds, normally eat deer, wild hogs, raccoons, alligators and wading birds. True wilderness animals, among the rarest creatures in North America, they have always had a reputation for avoiding the stink of humanity in their last decent habitat, the woods and swamps that remain in southwest Florida.

Field work, inputting data, analyzing data - that used to be the job of panther biologists.

In the 21st century, part of a panther biologist's job is knocking on doors and advising residents who have chosen to live near the wilderness about how to live with lions.

- - -

Decades ago, even folks who spent their lives in the woods rarely saw one. If they were lucky, they might see a track.

Panthers instinctively avoided people. For two centuries they were considered varmints and shot on sight. Their range, which had once extended east of the Mississippi all the way to Canada, had shrunk to a couple million acres in southwest Florida. When scientific studies began in 1981, the panther population was estimated at less than 30.

Most Floridians know the story. Development, poor water management and busy roads threatened the panther with extinction. The cats also suffered from birth defects, the result of years of inbreeding. In 1995, biologists introduced to South Florida lions from west of the Mississippi River to invigorate the panther's failing gene pool.

Now the panther population is estimated at 90 robust animals. By some accounts, habitat in southwest Florida can't support any more.

Civilization, however, creeps deeper into panther territory by the day. The result: encounters between Puma concolor coryi, Homo sapiens and their pets.

"Panthers are just trying to get by," biologist Deborah Jansen said recently. "We're producing cats out here and all they're trying to do is find new territory."

Of course, deer are supposed to be on the menu. Not Siamese cats or chihuahuas.

And not, God forbid, people.

- - -

Jansen, a wiry 59, grew up in Wisconsin as "one of those frog- catching kids." Her office in the Big Cypress is filled with alligator skulls and plaster of paris panther tracks. She has a lovely photograph of Don Juan.

Jansen, being a scientist, is more likely to call him No. 79 than Don Juan. But even she slips up from time to time out of respect for the big boy.

Panthers have been studied hard in Florida for 25 years; Don Juan, a husky male, has been among the most prolific breeders in the program. By some accounts, he sired 32 kittens.

Male Florida panthers usually die violently. Most don't survive adolescence. They're killed by cars, disease, alligators and snakes, but usually by larger male panthers who instinctively eliminate competition for food and females.

Like the tomcat in urban neighborhoods, panthers wander endlessly. A male panther's range extends hundreds of square miles.

In 2006, the year he went bad, Don Juan was an old man of 10. Whenever biologists captured him to change the batteries in his collar, they marveled. Older male panthers usually are covered by battle scars. Don Juan's tawny brown coat looked as if no panther had ever laid a claw on him.

- - -

Don Juan made people nervous, and not only because he was eating their pets. Folks wondered if they might be next.

Out west, the panther's close relative, the mountain lion, occasionally sups on human flesh. They've been blamed in about a dozen attacks, mostly in Colorado and California, where new suburbs crowd lion territory.

In South Florida, dogs, lightning and bees are considered more dangerous than panthers. Only one attack is on the books.

But that's officially. Unofficially, panthers forever have been sneaking up on babies in bassinets or dropping from tree limbs onto the backs of unwary settlers.

"The panther's claws caught him on the shoulder, ripping his coat and shirt down and lacerating his back badly," reported the New York Times in 1897. "Mr. (John) Finn made a thrust at the panther with his hunting knife, but the beast knocked it out of his hand with a blow of his paw . . .

"Hardly had Mr. Finn gotten 10 feet away before he heard the panther after him again. With tremendous leaps he dashed up to him, crouching low for the fatal spring. Just then a report was heard at the side of the path, the strength of the beast was gone and with a snarl of rage and pain he fell dead. Mr. Finn looked up and saw Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole. He had been on the trail of the beast all the afternoon and had gotten there just in time to save Mr. Finn's life."

- - -

Don Juan was born in the Big Cypress in 1995. His mother was one of those Texas cougars, his father an uncollared male Florida panther about which nothing else is known.

His daddy must have had Casanova in his genes. In a five-year period starting in 1999, Don Juan fought off other male panthers for the honor of mating with seven females. He was the father of virtually every litter produced in the Big Cypress south of Alligator Alley.

Biologists knew all of this because they had caught and collared him and followed his exploits by radio.

Nobody can say, for sure, why he changed his dining habits. Perhaps, as a panther old man, he was tired. Perhaps a younger, stronger male had chased him out of his regular territory. At 10, maybe he just got lazy. Easier to eat a kitty than chase down a hog that fights back.

One night he strolled through the gate into Bob Mayberry's yard on Turner River Road to help himself to a snack. Mayberry's dogs attacked; Don Juan fought back. The dogs, torn up, survived.

About a mile away, Don Juan enjoyed another chicken dinner over at Calvin Hodges' house.

A few nights later he returned to eat the cat, Homer.

Next he visited the Trail Lakes Campground on U.S. 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail. The huge statue of a Florida panther on the lawn must have made him feel welcome. He jumped a fence and gulped down David Shealy's petting zoo turkey.

Jansen and other panther experts showed up with dogs. The dogs chased Don Juan into a tree. A veterinarian shot Don Juan with a tranquilizer. When he came to, he was 25 miles away at a place called Raccoon Point, far from any people or their pets.

Raccoons are good to eat. But Don Juan had another meal in mind.

Two days later, Jansen was driving on the Tamiami Trail toward park headquarters when she got a bad feeling. She pulled off the road and turned on her radio receiver. Don Juan's collar was beeping a strong signal. He was back in the neighborhood.

"I don't believe this," Jansen said to herself.

Don Juan waited until after dark to visit Hodges' yard again. Why he looked into the old man's window anyone can guess. At the electrified chicken coop, he received his comeuppance and bolted for safer environs.

A few nights later, he strolled into the tiny village of Copeland on State Road 29 and found himself a pet pot-bellied pig.

One last time the biologists and hounds came looking for him. They trailed him into the oaks and Brazilian pepper. Don Juan climbed a tree. He hissed and growled as the drug took effect.

His days of using back yards as a fast food restaurant were at an end.

- - -

But the problem wasn't over. Another panther had learned about the easy pickings available in the Copeland neighborhood.

Pam Mesce was doing a jigsaw puzzle at her dining room table one evening last September when she heard something crash against the front door of her home near Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. A panther had her pet cat, Mizzy, pinned against the door.

As Mesce watched, the panther ambled into the woods with Mizzy in its jaws.

"This all has changed the way we live," said Mesce, an environmentalist. "When my husband and I are working in the yard now we never turn our backs to the woods. I can't stop thinking about Mizzy. The last I saw her she wasn't yowling. She just looked shocked. Her eyes were kind of bulging out and her little paws were tucked under her chin in that panther's jaws."

- - -

With panther predations in the news, wildlife agencies held public hearings throughout southwest Florida last fall.

Biologists advised:

If you live in panther territory, keep your pets indoors or locked up in a barn at night. Don't leave small children to play by themselves. Jog, walk or ride your bike with a buddy. If you see a panther, don't run. Make yourself look bigger by holding up your arms. Retreat but don't turn your back.

The meetings were well attended and mostly polite, though hysteria was in the air.

A few citizens demanded that science agencies remove Florida's official state animal from Florida.

"It's my property, not the panther's property. I paid for it," said a resident of Golden Gate Estates, a Naples suburb, according to the Naples Daily News.

On Internet blogs, where anonymous writers felt free to vent, another argument was tendered.

"We've all heard about self-absorbed a------- who move next door to a farm and then complain about noises and odors. Now it seems some of their twisted relatives are moving to the edge of a wilderness and then being furious that they might have an encounter with . . . drum roll . . . a wild animal. DUUUHHH!!!"

- - -

A panther attacked Reed Lolly's pet miniature donkey one morning at Golden Gate Estates, a development suddenly too close for comfort to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Lolly had read about Don Juan. In Collier County, he was as notorious as Billy the Kid. But this wasn't Don Juan. It was another panther, one without a radio collar.

At 57, the Florida-born Lolly loved the woods. He owned 10 beautiful acres and counted on seeing deer in the morning and hearing owls at night.

"Puddy," the donkey named after a Seinfeld television character, survived attack No. 1 by kicking the panther in the face.

A few mornings later the panther tried a frontal assault.

Puddy, about the size of a German shepherd, kept the panther away from his throat. But months later the puncture wound in his nose hadn't healed.

One night after supper Lolly ambled out the front door into his yard. A panther, hardly a dozen feet away, was ambling his way, looking fearless. "Hey, big fellow, I'm not food, and I'm getting out of here," Lolly told the panther.

The lion lay down in his yard like the king of the jungle.

Lolly's donkeys now sleep in a locked barn at night. Security cameras occasionally show the panther strolling through the yard with impunity.

Lolly's next-door neighbor is Donovan Smith, 35. The panther has eaten six of his goats. Smith, who has an animal display business, also counts giraffes and zebras on his 42 acres. The other day he bounced down his unpaved street atop his pet camel, Sultan.

"I'll tell you one thing," Smith declared. "No panther will ever take Sultan. He'll kick the living s--- out of him."

- - -

In his prime, when he was sowing wild oats, Don Juan was the king of his territory, a 602-square-mile slice of Big Cypress. That's twice the size of Pinellas County.

The other morning Don Juan was asleep in a 10- by 15-foot cage at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Outside, he had a 20- by 30-foot enclosure for wandering when he woke. Park staffers had planted bamboo and shrubs in the enclosure to make him feel at home.

Ray Ball, 41, his veterinarian, described Don Juan as a beautiful panther, 120 pounds or so, with fine teeth, maybe a little worn, but still lethal.

Deborah Jansen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had driven up a few weeks earlier from the Big Cypress to see the old rascal. She was pleased that he was not pacing endlessly or biting the bars. "He seems to be adjusting," she said.

Don Juan, who got into trouble because he ate pets, now devours three pounds of vitamin-fortified horse meat every day. For a treat he eats rabbits and road-kill deer.

He will live in captivity for the rest of his life. There are no plans to put him on public display.

His compound is situated at the southwest corner of the park. He can hear the wooden roller coaster, Gwazi, as it rockets along the tracks.

In the other direction, only a few feet from Don Juan's compound wall, is busy Busch Boulevard.

When the wind is right, Don Juan probably smells the tomato and garlic wafting over from Bruno's Pizza Pie.

Don Juan is now a civilized cat.