Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

State, federal investigators offer reward for Florida panther killed in Hendry County

This panther was shot in Hendry County in April and found about a week later. The young female was ready to breed.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This panther was shot in Hendry County in April and found about a week later. The young female was ready to breed.

For two months, state and federal wildlife investigators have been trying to figure out who shot a Florida panther and left its carcass to rot.

In cases like this, investigators collect evidence, bring in forensic experts, question potential witnesses.

"We treat it just like a murder victim," said Col. Julie Jones, law enforcement chief for the state wildlife commission.

None of that has proved fruitful thus far. So this week, hoping to coax someone to come forward, officials offered a $15,000 reward.

But history isn't on their side.

The shooting occurred sometime during the week of April 13 in rural Hendry County, just outside the boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The victim, found on April 21, turned out to be a young female, about 2 years old and ready to breed for the first time.

"Obviously the loss of a reproductive female is not a good thing," said Dave Onorato, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's panther section.

There are about 100 panthers in South Florida, evenly divided between males and females. That one shooting wiped out 2 percent of the female panther population, Onorato said.

For 51 years, it's been illegal to shoot a Florida panther. The early settlers called it a "tiger" or a "catamount." They feared the animals so much they usually shot them on sight. By 1958, though, the panther had become so scarce that state officials said no more hunting.

Yet even after Florida panthers were put on the endangered species list in 1966, even after they were declared Florida's official state animal in 1981, people still occasionally shot one.

Most panther poachers have successfully avoided any consequences.

Between 1978 and 2008, state records show, seven panthers were shot, five fatally. Also shot and killed: a Texas cougar brought in to refresh the panthers' genetic stock. Of those eight shootings of big cats, only two people were ever prosecuted.

The most famous was James Billie, then chief of the Seminole Tribe of Indians, who shot and skinned a panther in 1983. Billie said he did it as part of a tribal ritual.

At trial, his defense attorney argued that there were too many genetic questions about what was a wild panther and what wasn't. No one could prove what he killed was a wild panther, his attorney said. A state jury acquitted him in 1987, and federal officials dropped the remaining charges.

The second poacher hauled into court was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker. In 1984, he was hiding about 12 to 15 feet up a tree in a Palm Beach County wildlife management area, armed with a muzzle-loader, when a female panther walked by. Booker said he feared the panther would attack him, so he shot it.

Although he pleaded guilty, Circuit Judge Carl Harper refused to send him to the hoosegow.

"Ain't no way in the world I'm going to put you in jail," the judge, an avid hunter, told Booker, then sentenced him to probation.

Still, times and attitudes change, state officials say. The reward money in this case came not only from the Humane Society and Defenders of Wildlife, but also such pro-hunting groups as the Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance and the Everglades Coordinating Council.

The reward poster features a photo of the dead panther. The animal lies on its left side, showing off its tawny fur and large paws. It wore no radio collar — most panthers don't have them — so biologists will have some difficulty tracking back on its travels.

Wildlife officials won't release details such as who found the body or what caliber of bullet killed it, or discuss the status of the investigation. But when confronted by similar crime scenes involving bears and other animals shot by poachers, investigators follow procedures familiar to anyone who watches TV cop shows.

They document the scene with photos, collect shell casings, look for tracks and tire marks. They ship the carcass to a trained forensics expert to dissect it. They send the bullet to a ballistics lab.

And they track down and question witnesses: the owner of the land where the body was found, neighbors, hunters who might frequent the area. Posting a reward often helps with older, colder cases like this one.

"We've worked some bear cases that are months old," Col. Jones said. "We go talk to the members of a hunt club, and finally one will say, 'I know what really happened.' If you look them in the eye, it's hard for them to lie."

Cars tend to be deadlier than guns for panthers. Onorato, the biologist, said the panther shot in April is one of eight killed this year. Six were run over. The other was killed fighting with another panther over what's left of their dwindling habitat.

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or

>>Fast facts

Want to help?

Anyone with information can call the USFWS' Office of Law Enforcement in Fort Myers at (239) 561-8144. To remain anonymous, call the FWC's Wildlife Alert Line at 1-888-404-3922.

State, federal investigators offer reward for Florida panther killed in Hendry County 06/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:48pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. 'If anyone can hear us … help.' Puerto Rico's mayors describe 'horror in the streets'


    SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - In the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, the floodwaters reached more than 10 feet. Stranded residents screamed "save me, save me," using the lights in their cellphones to help rescue teams find them in the darkness, the town's mayor said.

  2. My AP Top 25 ballot: FSU out, USF, Florida Gators back in


    Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher still thinks he can have a good team, as I wrote in today's Tampa Bay Times. Maybe he's right.

  3. Forecast: Scattered thunderstorms in Tampa Bay; Maria could affect Carolinas


    Scattered thunderstorms will threaten the Tampa Bay area Sunday, but most of the area will see sunshine.

    Scattered thunderstorms threaten Tampa Bay on Sunday. [Courtesy 10News WTSP]
  4. Trump tweets and NFL response escalate drama of Sunday games


    The owners of the Baltimore Ravens, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and other teams on Sunday joined a chorus of NFL executives criticizing President Donald Trump's suggestion that they fire players who kneel for the national anthem.

    President Donald Trump walks off the stage after he speaks at campaign rally in support of Sen. Luther Strange, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Huntsville, Ala. [Associated Press]
  5. Rays Journal: Duda home run sets Rays record


    BALTIMORE -- With one swing of the bat, Rays DH/1B Lucas Duda broke a team record and tied a personal mark in Saturday's game against the Orioles that was not complete at press time.

    Lucas Duda, right, watches his three-run home run against the Orioles.