Serenaded with the guitar strains of “Seminole Wind” by singer-songwriter John Anderson and awaited by a breathless audience of politicians and news media, the female panther seemed reluctant to leave her crate. The door had just been opened in the middle of an open pasture at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron’s Hendry County ranch, and nothing was blocking the endangered cat’s path. But she didn’t budge.
A few seconds passed as Anderson continued to sing. Finally one of the animal’s handlers rattled the crate and she stepped out. She briefly turned toward the throng of reporters and photographers standing behind a barbed wire fence. Abruptly, she charged full speed away from all the humans and disappeared into the woods.
“Long live the Everglades and long live the panther,” said Bergeron. “We believe this panther has a good chance of contributing to progress we are making in the recovery of this population.”
The cat’s life got off to a rough start. Found hiding in the bushes in Collier County’s Golden Gate neighborhood last May, the 9-month-old was suffering from a broken leg and bruised ribs from an apparent vehicle strike. She underwent surgery at a local animal hospital, then later was transported to the White Oak Conservation Center in northeast Florida, where she lived and learned to hunt in a large habitat pen with little human contact.
Now about 2 years old, able to breed and ready for release, the cat was transported Monday by van to Green Glades West — Bergeron’s large, remote ranch flanked by the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Seminole Indian Reservation.
The cat is believed to be one of about 160 Florida panthers now roaming the state and the third to be rehabilitated and released into the South Florida wild over the past year. Brother and sister cats set free last year in the area had opposite fates: The male — released in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area — died of unknown causes, but his sister, released in Picayune Strand State Forest, is now believed to be pregnant.
The agency used Monday’s event to urge Floridians to purchase “Protect the Panther” license plates and to promptly report dead or injured panthers at #FWC or *FWC on cellphones.