About a year ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded to a call about a wild panther in Highlands County that had gotten its left front paw caught in a snare trap. They figured the snare was placed by a landowner tired of roaming predators.

The snare wrapped around Walter’s knuckles and tightened each time he clenched his paw, holding him in place. It pulled tight enough to wear into his bones. Another snare became wrapped around his neck.

Somehow, Walter escaped and was brought to ZooTampa.

X-rays of the severely injured paw of
X-rays of the severely injured paw of "Walter" the wild panther where he received surgery from a team of doctors at the ZooTampa at Lowry Park in Tampa.

Walter has undergone a series of surgeries, in part because of a crushed trachea and to graft skin from his stomach onto his paw. The grafting procedure failed and the skin fell off, but the paw managed to heal on its own, said Dr. Ray Ball, head veterinarian and director of medical services at ZooTampa..

His big central pad, like the one all cats and dogs have on the bottoms of their feet, actually shifted forward a bit as it healed and helped him absorb the impact of his steps. This development persuaded Ball and others who cared for Walter that they could refrain from amputating

Dr. Lauren Smith an associate veterinarian conducts a thorough physical with her colleagues on
Dr. Lauren Smith an associate veterinarian conducts a thorough physical with her colleagues on "Walter".

Today, Walter is doing far better than Ball had expected.“ I couldn’t expect much better,” Ball said. “We’re all very happy with how he’s done.”

The story of Walter’s success serves as the springboard for a major expansion at the zoo — the biggest in 10 years. Once he finishes treatment, the panther will take up residence in “Walter’s Corner,” part of a makeover that will serve sick and injured panthers, black bears, Key deer and other Florida wildlife.

“This is what is going to initiate the development for the panthers; this little nook is how we are kicking it all off,” said Dr. Ray Ball, head veterinarian and director of medical services at ZooTampa.

The 6,000-square-foot animal hospital has the capacity to care for as many as a thousand patients. Opened in November 2014, it adjoins a recovery center almost as big. The hospital is equipped with state-of-the-art surgery, pharmacy and radiology facilities, and labs.

It is accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association, the first in the United States and Canada to achieve the status.

Walter soon will be introduced into the zoo’s panther habitat, which he may share with the park’s two other panthers — Lucy and Micanopy. One section was customized to serve Walter’s special needs, Walter’s Corner, including stair steps so he doesn’t jump off ledges and hurt his paw.

Alava compared it to accommodations that might be made under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The small section will be like an ADA area,” she said, “but for a panther.”