The wind blew in the panther's favor. He smelled me before he saw me, and saw me before I saw him. "He's got a bead on you,'' Susan Lowe whispered. "He's checking you out right now.''
We were at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, where Lowe is the wildlife care supervisor. It took me a second to locate the panther. He was to our right, some distance away, eclipsed by tree limbs and the mesh of a sturdy compound. He turned in our direction as we approached. Crouching, the most famous Florida panther in our state's history gave us the once-over.
I stood 6 feet from his unforgiving gaze. He stared into my eyes so hard I looked away.
Once, he was the dominant male cat in South Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve. Biologists, who normally hate to personify animals, nicknamed him Don Juan in tribute to his prowess. As the panther population struggled, he was the most prolific breeder in the land. Over a decade he mated with nine females who gave birth to more than 30 cubs.
Other male panthers sired cubs. But not when they were in Don Juan's territory. The king of the forest, he chased them away or killed them.
Now he lives in captivity. I would like to think he will never be tamed.
Don Juan came to my attention in 2007 when I visited South Florida to write about panthers, among North America's rarest animals. At one time there were fewer than 20 left, but over the decades their numbers had climbed to about 100 animals, thanks to endangered species programs.
That good news caused a whole new set of problems. The wilderness-loving panthers — relatives of the mountain lion — were competing for territory with a growing human population and relentless development.
Don Juan, who roamed a 200-square-mile corner of Florida, had learned his human neighbors weren't all bad. Many owned pets and tasty domestic animals. These tame critters proved easier to catch and kill than ornery wild hogs and alligators that fought back.
One night, a state game warden saw Don Juan looking into a window. A short time later the panther trotted into a fairly developed area and killed a pet pig in a back yard. The next day biologists caught him and took him out of the wild for good.
Biologists knew a lot about Don Juan. They had caught him for the first time when he was young, collected blood samples and outfitted him with a radio-equipped collar. That was when they gave him his official name: Panther No. 79. Scientists kept track of his every movement, and when a female went into estrus, they knew Don Juan was moving in for romance. A blood test of the inevitable cubs usually revealed Don Juan's DNA.
What biologists couldn't understand was why he had suddenly become a rogue at age 9. Maybe an older Don Juan could no longer compete with a newer male panther, bigger and more powerful, in his territory. Or maybe he had just learned a new trick. Whatever, he was now considered dangerous.
He ended up in Busch Gardens, to serve out his days in insolation, in a small compound, in the shadow of a roller coaster, on the other side of a tall fence from a busy highway lined with fast-food restaurants. The tourist attraction planned to build him a new home, but ran into budgeting problems. So late last year Don Juan was moved to Homosassa Springs.
• • •
Last week, I looked into Don Juan's eyes for the first time. His pupils dilated. His ears lay down. His whiskers drooped and the tip of his tail quivered.
"He's uneasy,'' explained Lowe, responsible for his care. "He doesn't like us to be so close.''
He crouched behind a fence, about 6 feet away, 130 pounds and 7 feet of Florida panther, a captive but looking ferocious, capable of opening a jugular with a flick of his claws.
When another park employee edged closer, Don Juan hissed and bared his teeth. Our panther was on the other side of the fence — we were perfectly safe — but we retreated anyway.
"He is doing well,'' Lowe told me. "He has a good appetite. We give him 2 1/2 pounds of fortified horse meat and some vitamin-filled cat food a day. When he catches a squirrel or bird that lands in the wrong spot, that's a wild-meat bonus for him. The big thing is, we're hoping he gets used to people.''
Sometimes, in the early morning, before the park opens, Lowe allows Don Juan to enter the large cat compound which one day may be his new territory. It's 150 feet long and 60 feet wide and features a fallen tree for when he feels like lounging or scratching. For the present, though, he steps into the compound, sniffs the air and retreats. "We're going to let him do this at his own speed,'' Lowe said.
• • •
I've always loved watching cats, even domestic ones. They may act tame, but you can never quite own them. If a squirrel shows up on the other side of the window, your nice lap cat suddenly behaves like a lion.
In late afternoon at Homosassa Springs, I ended up on the boardwalk at the panther compound. In the distance Don Juan sprawled on his platform behind the trees, behind his own fence, watching us tourists.
He seemed more interested in Maygar, an infertile 9-year-old female cougar. She was on the other side of the fence, in the large compound in front of him. She seemed relaxed in the gaze of humans, checking out the tourists who checked her out in turn.
Don Juan suddenly called to her. I had never heard a panther vocalize, as biologists call it, and the hair stood on my neck. For whatever reason, she ignored him.
He whistled — yes, panthers whistle — but she ignored that, too.
He ambled, disappointed, into his shelter.
She sprinted across the compound to the fence next to his shelter, swatted it with a paw, sprinted away just as fast.
He bolted out for a look. But she was gone, the tease.
"EEEYOW!'' he implored.
I was thrilled to be a witness to the panther melodrama and I would like to see it again. But I have to tell you, it broke my heart to see Don Juan, the red hot lover of the Big Cypress, in that situation.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] and (727) 893-8727.