Liesa Priddy suspected something was up when the calf disappeared. No carcass. No bones. Just … gone.
She wondered if it had been dragged off by a predator prowling her family's 9,000-acre Collier County ranch — a coyote, for instance.
A neighbor with night-vision goggles volunteered to park his pickup on her ranch and watch the herd. What he saw that October night has sent state and federal wildlife officials scrambling for a solution to a crisis that could alter the future of Florida's state animal. And the solution, they say, may cost taxpayers.
That night, the watcher saw a Florida panther charge out of the shadows and leap on one of Priddy's calves. He saw the panther sink its sharp teeth into the victim's skull.
He managed to scare off the big cat, but not in time to save the calf, Priddy said. The next day they found that something, probably a panther, had attacked a third calf on her Sunniland Ranch north of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and killed that one too.
Normally panthers eat deer and hogs, with the occasional raccoon or opossum. Veal is not supposed to be on their menu. However, as Priddy pointed out, "a calf is a lot easier to catch than a deer."
Although South Florida cattlemen have long suspected they were occasionally losing livestock to the endangered panther, no one had any proof — until now.
"You feel very helpless," she said.
State panther biologists set to work tracking the culprit. On Nov. 3, they captured a male their dogs had trailed from the vicinity of the Priddy family's ranch to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. They stuck a radio collar on it so they could keep tabs on its movements.
So far, that panther hasn't returned to Priddy's ranch, said Darrell Land, panther team leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But other calves have disappeared from her neighbors' herds, leading them to suspect more than one panther is on the prowl.
Meanwhile, more cattlemen are blaming panthers for the loss of their cows.
"We know we're having problems because we see the panthers and we know they're here, and we look at the percentage of deaths among our calves," said Buzz Stoner, manager of the Immokalee Ranch, north of the Priddy family spread.
However, Defenders of Wildlife activist Elizabeth Fleming said she's sure some of the losses are due to coyotes.
Nevertheless, the discovery that even one panther has been killing cattle comes at a bad moment for the species' future, state and federal officials acknowledge.
The panther population dipped so low in the mid 1990s — to a mere 20 to 30 cats — that inbreeding occurred, producing life-threatening genetic defects. State officials brought in a close cousin, the Texas cougar, to replenish the genetic pool. The result: not only did the defects fade but the population boomed. There are now about 100 panthers in South Florida's remaining wilderness.
But while the population expanded, the feverish pace of development shrank the remaining habitat. Records show federal officials failed to stop any development of panther habitat after 1993.
That's why simply relocating the panther attacking the calves won't work, Priddy said.
"Where are they going to relocate them to?" she asked. "The underlying problem is that they don't have anywhere to go."
Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been negotiating with the larger landowners in Collier County to work out a panther habitat protection plan. The plan would reward preservation of some habitat by allowing the alteration of it in other areas.
Federal officials said such an agreement would be a template for similar deals with landowners in other parts of Florida when they were ready to try to establish new panther colonies.
But that was before the calves began disappearing. The spate of calf attacks is likely to put a kink in those negotiations, Land said.
The knowledge that panthers kill cows will present yet another challenge to creating a new colony of cats anywhere cattle still roam.
Priddy said her calves are worth $600 to $800 apiece, so the losses quickly add up.
"We don't feel like we should bear the burden of providing for the panthers," she said.
She and other ranchers have wondered if the government might set up a compensation fund to pay for those losses. However, figuring out who gets paid might be tricky. Stoner noted that most ranches are so big it's impossible to keep the herds under surveillance and verify the identity of the culprit.
Still, such funds are not uncommon out West where ranchers lose cattle to mountain lions, wolves and grizzly bears, Fleming said. Often a group like Defenders will set up such a fund, using donated money as the seed, but then turn the fund over to a government agency to keep it going long-term, she said.
At this point, she said, they're still talking about what to do and whether any of the solutions from the mountainous West will fit the circumstances in swampy South Florida. Another problem, of course, is that the current vogue in state government is to cut budgets, not find new reasons to spend money.
"We're so early in those kind of considerations it is impossible to say how a possible fund would work," Land said.
Fleming said everyone is working hard to deal with this crisis because they know the ranchers can't continue sustaining these losses.
"They have let us know that if they don't see a solution coming," she said, "then they will start taking matters into their own hands, and that's never good."