By Jay Cridlin
Times Staff Writer
Danielle Lucas cautions Gatorland visitors to temper their expectations when visiting the park's new 2,000-square-foot habitat Panther Springs habitat.
"Just like typical cats, they're lazy and love to sleep all day," said Lucas, the park's lead animal care specialist. And you won't hear them roar; their squeaks and purrs sound more like those of the tabby you left at home.
But Neiko and Lucy, the habitat's furry new residents, are still mesmerizing to behold.
This has not been the kindest couple of years for the Florida panther. Already endangered nearly to the point of extinction, a record 26 panthers — as much as a quarter of the state's estimated population — were killed in 2012, most of them by vehicles. A number of panthers do thrive in captivity.
Bred and raised in captivity, the 7-year-old siblings are hybrids of a true Florida panther and a Western cougar. At 210 pounds, Neiko is markedly bigger than Lucy — "He looks like a true Western, and she looks like a Florida panther," Lucas said.
The cats are fed indoors, but handlers do place "bloodsicles" — frozen chunks of blood and meat — in the pen for them to snack on. The siblings occasionally interact with each other, wrestling playfully and tussling with an exercise ball (the keepers usually toss it in the goat pen beforehand to give it that delicious new-goat smell). Lucy can be a bit of a diva, but Neiko can be quite charming, taking dips in a pond, playing peek-a-boo with handlers and inspecting curious children.
"He'll put his nose right up to the glass, and you'll see his breath hitting the glass," Lucas said. "He's just wanting the kids to play with him through the glass. He likes the attention. He's a bit of a ham."