A year ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission invited the public to submit reports of any sightings or signs of the elusive Florida panther to a new website the agency had created.
The very first one that popped in turned out to be … a monkey. Specifically, a rhesus macaque roaming the woods near Silver Springs.
Panther biologists looked at the photo, looked at each other and said, "Oh, yeah, this is off to a great start," recalled biologist Dave Onorato.
But among the other 789 reports submitted in the past 12 months, the biologists did see some actual panthers, said Darrell Land, who heads the wildlife commission's panther team. Five percent — about 40 — were sightings of panthers that could be verified through photos or tracks. Some of those verified sightings came with a story. One came from a couple living in the Golden Gate Estates development near Naples, Marc Strzodka and Saskia Fischer.
About 5 a.m. on a January morning, Fischer, 34, woke up to let their dog out in the back yard. Because they live in what she called "the boondock suburbs," they sometimes see interesting wildlife out back and they have motion-sensor cameras trained on it. The cameras captured the early-morning drama.
The dog, a 3-year-old Eskimo/Pomeranian mix named Clark, nosed around for a good spot and found one right in the center of the yard. "The dog did his business," Fischer said, "and then all of a sudden I have this panther jumping out of the bushes at us. I screamed, and the panther started making like a hissing noise."
Clark began "barking pretty good," Fischer said, but she had no intention of watching her pet try to fight a predator at the top of the food chain. "I was able to grab him by the tail and pull him in the house and shut the door. It was a very intense morning."
That and other sightings from populated areas show that these are no longer only wilderness animals, Land said.
"Panthers are now living in relatively urban areas," he said.
The state set up its website last August after biologists repeatedly heard unconfirmed reports of panther sightings from around the state. The site invited people to report what they'd seen along with any evidence to back up their claim.
The vast majority of the verified panther sightings were from south of the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, which biologists have long known to be the region where most of the state's 100 to 160 panthers live.
Only a sprinkling came from north of the river, and none of those appeared to be females, Land said. That was also not a surprise. Biologists have long believed that if the panther population is to survive, they need to start a new population somewhere north of the Caloosahatchee, but so far only male panthers have crossed the river into Central Florida. One roamed as far north as Georgia before it was gunned down by a nervous deer hunter.
The genuine panther sightings that cropped up on the wildlife commission's website were mixed in with sightings of bobcats, foxes, coyotes and dogs and one that was almost as puzzling as the monkey.
"I had a biology professor from a community college who said he saw one at Sebastian Inlet," Land said. When state biologists checked his photo, though, Land said they had to tell the professor, "Dude, that is a black house cat."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]