The location was odd enough. An anonymous caller reported seeing a dead Florida panther by the side of the Florida Turnpike near Yeehaw Junction. That's more than 150 miles north of where most panthers live.
When Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffers checked out the tip Thursday afternoon, they discovered something more disturbing.
Someone had cut off the panther's head.
On Friday the state wildlife agency offered a reward of up to $1,000 for information that could lead to the arrest of whomever took the grisly souvenir.
"To just simply whack off a panther's head is against the law," explained agency spokeswoman Joy Hill.
Possession of panther parts — even ones that came from an animal that was already dead — is illegal without a state permit, she said.
The decapitated panther, which was found near the Osceola-Indian River county line, had apparently been dead for a couple of days before it was reported, Hill said. At this point, though, no one can say for sure where the panther was killed or what killed it, much less where its head has gone.
"It appears to have been hit by a car," she said. "It was right there on the turnpike."
So far this year 20 panthers have died, according to Dave Onorato, a scientist with the wildlife commission's panther team. Twelve of the 20 were run over, making cars and trucks the primary predator of what the Chickasaw Indians once called "the cat of god."
Two centuries ago the Florida panther roamed throughout the Southeast. But since at least 1967, when it was included in the nation's first endangered species list, the panther population has been largely confined to the state's swampy southern tip.
About 100 prowl the woods and water there now, hunting for deer and hogs. From time to time, though, one of the wide-ranging males will show up well north of its normal habitat. Four years ago one was run over on Interstate 95 near St. Augustine.
Although it's been Florida's official state animal since 1981 — not to mention a popular license plate icon and the mascot of Miami's pro hockey team — panthers have had it particularly rough lately.
In April, someone shot a female panther in Hendry County near the Big Cypress National Preserve. Despite the offer of a $15,000 reward, federal officials still have made no arrests in that case.
More problematic was the case of a hunter in Georgia who called authorities last fall to report that he'd shot a big cat he thought was threatening him. Genetic tests this summer confirmed that it was a male panther that had roamed so far north it had crossed the state line.
And then there's another panther mystery. Officials still have not revealed the cause of death for one panther found dead last month near the Ave Maria development in Collier County, saying the case is still under investigation.