The kitten was a pitiful thing, scrawny and dehydrated. It hadn't eaten in days.
Its mother had been killed. Its sibling was gone too.
When it arrived at the White Oak Plantation in Yulee, "he was just about on death's door," said Steve Shurter, the plantation's conservation director.
That 5-month-old Florida panther kitten, once a 16-pound weakling, is getting a second chance. Rescued from the Big Cypress National Preserve in the fall, the cat known as K 304 has been growing steadily and could be released back into the wild by the end of the summer.
With a steady diet of meat, K 304 quickly recovered from being so skinny, said Shurter. But the tougher challenge lay in teaching that little kitten how to be a big panther.
"He just needed to be grown up," Shurter explained.
• • •
Panthers are Florida's state animal, an icon of license plates, school mascots and even a pro hockey team. In the 1990s their population had dwindled to no more than 30.
Then Florida's wildlife commission brought in eight female Texas cougars to breed with the panthers in the wild, refreshing the gene pool. Now there are more than 100 prowling South Florida's wilderness.
Because there was no similar effort to protect panther habitat, there are more panthers than ever squeezed into a smaller territory. As a result, male panthers — which once fought only with other males — have begun killing females, even females with kittens.
On Oct. 25, 2010, biologists monitoring radio collar signals from Florida panthers in the Big Cypress National Preserve near Naples noticed the collar on FP 102, a 12-year-old female, was beeping fast. The signal meant the cat hadn't moved for two hours — a sign it might be dead.
Sure enough, biologists found the remains of FP 102 lying in the moist soil of a small cypress strand. In the trampled underbrush, they found signs of a struggle. A veterinarian determined that a male panther had done the deed, biting so hard its teeth punctured the female's skull.
The biologists knew FP 102 had given birth to two male kittens five months earlier. The pair were still too young to strike out on their own, so where were they?
"I thought I saw something brown, just a flash," said Deborah Jansen, a National Park Service biologist who once tried to save a dying panther with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
She examined the ground near the fight and found a fresh kitten track. The biologists set up cameras and baited the area with meat. The cameras caught a bear, some opossums, raccoons and a male panther, but no sign of any kittens.
So on Oct. 30, the biologists called in Cougar McBride, the third generation in the McBride family to work as a panther tracker. He turned his dogs loose where FP 102 had been found. A male kitten, K 304, immediately zoomed up a nearby tree.
"He was waiting there for his mom," Jansen said. They never found the other one.
• • •
Shot with a tranquilizer, K 304 lay quietly on a blanket. The kitten had no obvious injuries but "he was very, very thin," said Jansen.
Ralph Arwood, an Everglades City photographer who has documented the panthers of Big Cypress, snapped a photo of the sedated K 304 lying on its side, its spindly legs splayed.
They gave the dehydrated kitten an intravenous drip, then put it aboard a swamp buggy and drove it out of the wilderness and eventually to Dr. John Lanier, a Naples veterinarian.
Arwood, who has a Beechcraft Baron, volunteered to fly the patient to White Oak, a onetime paper plantation now owned by a New York-based foundation. The 7,000-acre research facility in northeast Florida frequently provides a safe haven for rehabilitating injured adult panthers. K 304 was released into a half-acre pen.
White Oak staff members knew they had to feed the kitten, but in a way that it would learn to hunt. They began slipping ground meat into the enclosure at different times of the day — venison if they could get it, beef if they couldn't. They would put it in different places. The kitten would find it and gobble it down.
Soon they moved the growing cat into a 10-acre enclosure with more places to take cover.
"He quickly found places to be comfy in there, good hiding spots," Shurter said.
They set trap cameras all over the place, so they could keep tabs on the cat without exposing it to humans. And they started supplementing the ground beef with live rabbits so the young panther could catch something that was moving.
"We're putting out quite a bit of food now — 3 pounds of meat and five rabbits a week," Shurter said last week. Soon they'll turn some deer loose and see if the young male is ready for bigger game.
At one point, a storm swept through Yulee and knocked a bay tree onto the fence. The growing cat grabbed this chance to escape. But the radio collar around its neck showed it hadn't gone far — no more than 150 yards.
"We were able to recapture him quite easily," Shurter said.
The cat is nearing 85 pounds — adult size. Biologists are discussing when and where to release it back into the wild. Jansen said she's recommending it be turned loose where its mother was killed.
"He would recognize that area," she said.
After that, no one knows what might happen. Since 1998, biologists have captured four other orphaned kittens. All were raised in captivity until they were old enough to be released.
Three females did all right, Darrell Land of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told the St. Petersburg Times. However, he said, the other one "was a male and he only lasted (I think) about six weeks before he met an adult male and was killed."
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.