FLORIDA'S WILD CATS
One of the most astonishing things happened during on an early morning in November 1966. Each hour 150,000 meteors showered the earth in a meteor storm. As a newly inducted private at Fort Knox, Kentucky, I stood in formation in the dark and witnessed countless plummeting streaks of white raining from the sky, including brief flaming meteorites.
Roughly 40 years later on June 30, 2006, fate granted me a second miraculous sighting while I was riding my mountain bike in the early morning in Hillsborough Count’s Flatwoods Park.
Not four yards from me and onto the paved trail between Trout Creek and Flatwoods Loop came a large cat. The cat had traveled from a cypress swamp along an animal trail besides a culvert.
It was a brown cat with a long tail. I estimated its weight at about 80 pounds.
This animal was too big to be a bobcat, which are much smaller animals, rarely reaching 40 pounds.
This large cat dropped onto the ground beside the trail, turned its back to me in what I took to be a submissive posture, and crawled slowly away in the grass. Maybe it was the first time it had seen a man on a bicycle. It was certainly the first time I saw a panther in the wild (and so far the last).
It stopped crawling and looked over its shoulder and into my eyes. Briefly we stared at each other. Man agape at wildcat; wildcat puzzling at man. Both hearts beating loudly, I presume.
There was nothing else it could have been except a cougar, a Florida version called the Florida panther. Some say the Florida panther is a puma or cougar subspecies. Others say that it is not. It doesn’t matter what fine hairs scientists quibble over, because despite a century of human persecution and habitat destruction, it has become our state symbol for the remaining wild portions of Florida.
Never Kiss a Panther
After seeing the panther, I took off in mere seconds and went looking for a ranger to tell. Perhaps this panther would have stayed still while I looked at it for a longer time, but it seemed foolhardy to me to hang around a panther. Why?
In the year 1999, I was allowed on tour into Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in the company of school children, photographer Pete Carmichael, a ranger, and few billion biting flies. We killed yellow and black flies and flies of species unknown on each other’s bodies like Curley, Larry, and Moe (slap, smack, splat), but for these efforts I saw not a single panther.
Nearby, however, panthers were being captive bred, and Pete Carmichael knew the breeders. We were allowed into a room that included separately caged male and female cougars and a young kit roaming free.
Pete, always fearless, proceeded to scratch the adult cats in the cages like they were house cats – under the chin and behind the ears. Surprisingly the cougars allowed him to do this. Mustering my courage, I even tried it successfully without having my arm ripped off.
(Do not do this.)
Always liking cats, I began playing with the free roaming male kit.
(Do not do this either. Also do not kiss panthers.)
The kit wanted to roughhouse and was feelings it youthful oats, while the sun of my youth was setting. I pushed the kit away, and each time I pushed it away it charged backed and butted its head against me, over and over again, gnawing on one occasion on my jeans and an arm.
Thankfully it didn’t use its claws, but it did wrap its paws around my legs in a successful effort to topple me to the floor.
Although I likely outweighed the kit by a factor of four, it took me to the mat twice by being more aggressive than a sissified writer. After the second take down, it gnawed on my sneaker.
I hid behind Pete Carmichael, who soothed the savage kit while protecting the wimp writer.
When I saw the panther in the wild in 2006, there were no records in modern times of a Floridian being attacked by one. This didn’t stop me from pedaling away from the panther while remembering the aggressive kit. I didn’t want to become the first person in modern times to be attacked by a Florida panther; this honor went recently to a South Florida hunter who was calling turkeys in 2014.
A panther was first reported in Flatwoods Park to the northeast of Tampa in 2001. Since my 2006 sighting, a lone panther has been spotted by reliable sources in Flatwoods, including by some park rangers. A super-marathoner in 2014 encountered a cat he estimated at around 80 pounds on one of the off-road trails. It is possible this is the same panther, but unlikely; panthers usually grow bigger and heavier. Panthers also range over about 200 square miles.
Despite these sightings, your chances of seeing a panther by going to Flatwoods are pretty close to that proverbial snowball in hell, but I still go and hope to see my second panther in the wild and hope you will see your first.
Fortunately Florida’s other wild cats include an exotic cat seen from time to time, although how many are here is a good question. A member of the puma family, the jaguarundi comes from Central and South America.
I spotted one crossing the Florida Trail in St. Marks Natural Wildlife Refugee in 2002. A biologist at Blackwater River State Forest in 1998 showed me a photograph of one fed fried chicken in the backyard.
In 2014 a couple came to me in a county park because they had seen a dark cat with a long tail. I suggested they google jaguarundi. The next day they told me they were certain that was what they had seen coming out of Hunter’s Green.
Some think these jaguarundis are captive animals that have escaped or have intentionally been brought here and unintentionally released. Another guess is that they have migrated here from Texas and Mexico across the Mississippi and through the South. No one knows which is correct, and it could be all three.
The ones seen in Florida come either in a dark or red variation and have a long tail not bobbed. Smaller jaguarundis can weigh as little as a house cat and be easily confused with them. Others are significantly larger. Usually they are smaller than a bobcat.
The first sighting in Florida of a jaguarundi goes back more than 100 years to 1907.
Jaguarundis are said to hunt by day, whereas bobcats and panthers hunt by night. I don’t trust this generalization, having seen opposite behaviors.
No one knows how many jaguarundis are around, but it isn’t thought to be many. They are rarely seen in road kill, although in that condition they might be hard to tell apart from road-killed domestic cats. Bobcats are fairly rare as road kill too, perhaps because they have learned to avoid roads.
Unlike the jaguarundi, bobcats are exceptional plentiful in Florida and easily recognized by their size and bobbed tail. (Alas, to complicate identification there are some bobcats that have a long tail, but are smaller animals than panthers.)
Nocturnal hunters, bobcats are all also seen during the day because they generally only sleep 2-3 hours at a time. Bobcats will eat any thing alive small enough for them to swallow, including birds and small mammals, including small domestic pets (as will foxes and coyotes).
Typically bobcats have two to three young per litter, usually born between the months of October and May more or less. Compared to panthers, bobcats have a small range in the wild of perhaps five square miles and usually move about the range slowly. Females with young will hang around the same area. Sometimes these females make themselves prominent in order to keep trespassers (especially coyotes and foxes) away from the kits.
Kitties of the Wilds
Cats are great for holding down rodent populations and preventing diseases carried by rats and mice.
There are “feral” cat populations living in our cities, suburbs, and even in some of Florida’s wilds, although domestic cats generally don’t do well in the wilds and more often become prey than hunter. A feral cat is either one that was born wild or got out, lost, and has become feral in the process.
The best interest of all domestic dogs and cats is to live in houses with their owners and not to be allowed to roam. An outdoor animal will have a shorter life with more illnesses and runs the risk of being run over on roads; killed, maimed, or crippled by other animals; or mistreated by the bent personalities also unfortunately part of our world.
Not only will responsible cat owners keep their animals indoors, they will also spay and neuter, license, and keep annual vaccinations up to date
Where to See Wild Cats in Tampa
When last visited, Lowry Park on Sligh Avenue had a panther and bobcats (and bears). And then, of course, there is Big Cat Rescue along Gunn Highway in Citrus Park, which will have a variety of native and exotic cats, including lions and tigers, and is always a great visit.
Sidebar. Cats as Bird Killers
Much alarm has been raised recently about cats as killers of birds. Despite all the numbers from investigators associated with the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no one truly knows how many feral cats are out there or how many birds and small mammals they kill. It is my belief that bird loves exaggerate the numbers killed whereas cat lovers understate them. Where studies are made and how they are designed can affect estimates.
The population of feral cats in the U.S. is given in different sources as between 20 to 50 million. This sort of guessing indicates the weakest of all the studies.
There is no doubt cats kill birds and that pets should live indoors. Nonetheless, the greatest killer of birds in the world is known as the human being. Habitat destruction is the greatest threat to bird species.
The number of birds various studies say cats kill goes from one billion to four billion annually. The number of mammals guessed to be slain by feral cats is given as much large, ten and even 20 billion. I am not good at math, but 20 or 50 cats million divides into eleven or 24 billion how many times?
I am skeptical.
Sidebar. Cats and Disease
Although cats, like all mammals, can come down with rabies, the incidence of rabid cats of all kinds biting humans is relatively small. In Florida, rabies is more commonly associated with raccoons and skunks (if you can find them). Feral and wildcats do hold down rats and mice, whose fleas carry many diseases, including bubonic plague.
In Texas, cats sometimes come down with bubonic plague from the rats they hunt (and maybe prairie dogs), although plague so far has rarely been transmitted to humans from these Texas fleas. The last known outbreak of bubonic plague in Florida happened in the 1920’s in the Panhandle, but fleas should be controlled anyway, not only for the comfort of your dog and cat, but for the overall health of everyone.
The only good flea is a dead flea, unless you’re a flea.