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Florida Panthers in South Georgia? Videos Included!
When I was a little kid, my grandparents lived in the tiny hamlet of Irwinville, Georgia. Granny and Papa, like their neighbors, were farmers. Just about everyone in the area kept chickens and a few cows and pigs. Most of them also grew corn and other row crops.
The Alapaha River and its swamp were very near my grandparents’ place. I remember Granny telling my mom that one of her neighbors had shot a panther that was attacking one of his calves. Papa and the other men all went to see the body of the slain cat.
When I heard this, I pictured a black panther – you know, a melanistic jaguar. I was too young to realize that jaguars didn’t inhabit South Georgia. The only “panthers” I’d ever seen were on Walt Disney movies, and they were all black. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the animal that my grandparents’ neighbor had shot had to have been a Florida panther.
About fifteen years ago, my husband, Johnny, and I purchased a mini-farm in Cook County, Georgia. My two youngest daughters and I were very into horses, and we wanted to have our equine in our back yard, so to speak. Before buying the land, we boarded them at a local stable.
My dad had warned Johnny that if he wasn’t careful, I’d have a zoo. Johnny wasn’t careful, and I had a zoo: four dogs, twelve cats, five horses, fish, goats, a bull, ducks, rabbits, and chickens. It was great! We lived on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and were surrounded by woods, fields, ponds, and creeks. Our closest neighbors were a half-mile away.
We hadn’t been in our new country home very long before Johnny heard a strange sound one night, coming from the woods behind the house. He got me to join him outside for a listen. It sounded exactly like a baby screaming. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. What would a baby be doing in the woods? We had no idea what the sound was, and we had no idea of what to do. Should we call the local sheriff? Surely it was some animal. But what if it really was a baby, and we took no action to save it? We decided to call our neighbor.
Our neighbor was Ricky Pierce. He had befriended us immediately upon our move and had been very helpful. He was about my age, and we really hit it off. Ricky plowed our garden and planted rye and millet for the horses whenever we asked him to. I think we would have been totally lost without him - at least for that first year or two.
Rick probably lived about a half a mile away, as the crow flies. We called Ricky, and he assured us that what we were hearing was a panther. He heard them often, and he told us they sounded just like a baby or a woman screaming.
A panther? There were panthers around here? Johnny and I were skeptical. Maybe it was a bobcat we’d heard.
I saw Rick a couple of days later and asked him about these “panthers.” Did he mean bobcat, I asked? No, he meant panther. Mountain lion. Puma. Painter. Catamount. A large predator that was a heck of a lot bigger than a bobcat. Had he ever actually seen one of these panthers, I asked? He assured me that he had seen them several times, and that he knew there was more than one because early one morning, he had seen two of them together. He described them as being about two and a half feet tall and goldish-tan, with long tails.
I was still just a bit skeptical. I knew Ricky had no reason to make up such a tale, but I wondered if it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. Maybe he had observed two big yellow dogs on a foggy morning and thought they were pumas. I was soon made a believer, however.
A couple of months later, Johnny heard a terrible ruckus down at the barn one afternoon. He started down that way to see what was going on when he was stopped dead in his tracks. A huge cat was walking out from under the barn with a chicken in its mouth. It stopped for a second, turned and looked at Johnny, then trotted off toward the creek.
Johnny ran inside and grabbed the shotgun. He was obviously shaken.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I just saw one of those panthers at the barn! It stole a chicken!”
“You can’t kill it – they’re endangered!”
I finally talked Johnny into putting the gun away, and I asked him to explain exactly what he’d seen. He described the critter the same way Ricky had described the ones he’d seen. I was still just a tiny bit skeptical. With gun in hand for protection, we went down to the barn to look for paw prints. And we found some. They were huge! Now I was totally convinced. There’s no way a bobcat could have made such prints.
Ever the investigator, I came in and called Game and Fish. They gave me the number of a guy to call, and I got in touch with him immediately. He explained that several years earlier, several Florida panthers fitted with radio collars had been released into the Okefenokee Swamp as an experiment. All the animals were supposed to have been neutered.
A couple of years later, all the animals were located and removed. There was just one little problem – they had found a dead cub. Obviously, all panthers hadn’t been sterile, after all! And since these cats have a wide range, that explains how some could have ended up in our area.
I finally got to see one for myself. One evening, Johnny and I were sitting in the backyard. It was late evening, in what the Scots refer to as the gloaming. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye at the edge of the field, so I whipped my head around in that direction. A large tan panther was slinking across a corner of the field. He entered the woods and disappeared.
Wow. This sighting was concrete proof for me! I had finally seen one of these creatures with my own eyes! As a result, my interest in the big cat was piqued, so I began researching.
The Florida panther is actually a puma. They stand from 24-30 inches tall at the withers and can weigh as much as 140 pounds. Males measure about seven feet from nose to tip of tail, while females are a little smaller. The animals can live as long as fifteen years.
These big cats once roamed the entire Southeast, but now they’re restricted mostly to South Florida. In fact, that’s where you’ll find the only breeding population of Florida panthers. It’s estimated that there are only about 70-100 left, after the population was slaughtered over the preceding centuries by farmers and hunters and their natural habitat has been largely destroyed.
A male’s range in his home territory can be 200 square miles or more. Young adult males that are looking to establish their own territory, however, will travel much farther.
Florida panthers are opportunistic carnivores. They typically hunt between dusk and dawn, for whitetail deer, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, armadillos, rabbits, and even small alligators. The big cats will also take livestock and family pets if the opportunity presents itself.
The panthers are very adaptable. They can survive in a wide range of habitats, including swampland, scrub forests, and tidal regions.
In 1967, the species was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some conservationists are making efforts to re-establish the panthers in other areas, but this is being met with resistance by farmers and ranchers, who see the cats as a threat to their livestock.
For years, the range of the Florida panther has been disputed. Claims by South Georgians about local sightings were often scoffed at, but last year, the definitive evidence was undeniable. A panther was killed by a deer hunter in Troupe County, Georgia, and its DNA was studied. Some wildlife experts thought the cat was a puma that had escaped from a zoo or preserve and not a Florida panther at all. The DNA, however, matched the genetic material of the other panthers in South Florida. Evidently, this young male had traveled hundreds of miles in order to establish his own territory.