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Hope for a dying breed

For one of the last of a dying breed, 5-month-old Cory looks decidedly healthy.

These days, the slight, brown Florida panther kitten can be found emitting chirping sounds in front of crowds at the Lowry Park Zoo.

But things were not always so good.

"When Cory first came to us from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, she was not in good health," Lowry Park Marketing Director Bill Anderson said. "She weighed slightly over a pound and had a form of internal parasite."

Worried that the panther would not survive, a team of specialists, including zoo doctor David Murphy, kept a 24-hour vigil.

"Now she weighs 25 pounds and is in excellent health," Anderson said.

Cory is one of about 30 to 50 remaining Florida panthers that once roamed Florida and the southeastern United States. The official state animal is facing extinction today, partly because of inbreeding, Anderson said.

Because there are so few panthers left, he said, one dominant cat is responsible for many offspring. That causes problems like heart murmurs and deviated septums.

"Cory's mother is one of 23 free-ranging wild cats in Florida. This is her first kitten from her first litter," said Lex Salisbury, the park's general curator.

Lowry Park is the only zoo in the world to place a Florida panther on permanent public display, Anderson said. Cory will be raised to produce two to four cubs every two years.

"Her offspring will be used in programs and released to the wild to create a new population of panthers," Anderson said.

The Lowry Park Zoo, the White Oaks Game Preserve, the Jacksonville Zoo and the Miami Metrozoo are all involved in the panther recovery effort under an interagency plan to preserve the endangered species. Two state and federal agencies also are involved.

Gracia Bennish, an artist who painted Cory, said she is involved in panther preservation because she worries about its future.

"I try to display the spirit of the panther so they become more valuable to us all," she said. "Extinction for one is extinction for us all."

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