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Building a better Florida PANTHER

"Does he bite?" I asked, my voice trembling.

I warily eyed the formidable feline sprawled in the corner of his pen. He lounged in the shade and stared right back, calmly running his raspy tongue over his huge, padded paws. As I tiptoed closer, the 125-pound cat yawned indifferently, exposing razor-sharp teeth that could easily rip me to shreds. I hesitated, then crouched down and patted the 7-foot Florida panther on the head.

I had never seen a panther before, but here was one just an arm's length away. I rubbed his forehead, trying to forget my fear that he would have me for lunch. He purred deeply, his curious green eyes focused on my awestruck brown ones. It was at precisely that moment that I thought of what a tragedy it would be if the precious few remaining panthers became extinct.

Many who want to save the panther probably feel the same way I did. Seeing these majestic cats prowl and purr tugs at our emotional heartstrings, so we make it our state animal, shell out money for panther license plates, make donations to panther groups and ooh and aah at captive Florida panthers.

Panther fans now have one more reason to cheer: On Aug. 3, a state and federal panther task force finally got the green light to draw up plans for the genetic restoration of the cats. Female Texas cougars could be released into the wild in South Florida by January as part of a cross-breeding program to save the genetically pathetic panther.

This effort will be one of two that are needed to save the panther, says Tom Logan, chief of wildlife research at the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. The other part of the plan focuses on habitat protection.

"The right things are really happening now," Logan said. "We've spent lots of time and money on panther research, determining their problems and their needs, and determining the solutions. Now we know the solutions, and we now have the okay to do it. We will do it."

The panther's modern genetic plight began about 100 years ago when the panther was one of about 30 subspecies of Felis concolor, also called cougar, mountain lion or puma. The cougar's habitat ranged across North and South America, and the panther subspecies (Felis concolor coryi) ranged throughout the entire Southeast and crossbred with a few other subspecies _ including the Texas cougar. This kept the genetic stock healthy and diverse.

So the many subspecies roamed and frolicked together _ until humans came along. Towns full of settlers popped up all over panther land, isolating small populations of animals from each other. One particular group was pushed all the way back into the Everglades, where their few surviving offspring still live. The cats were safe there for a while, because no one wanted to settle in mucky, mosquito-infested swampland. But soon we began moving there, too. Panther-human contact was inevitable.

When the panther and human populations converged, the panthers were the ones who suffered, getting killed by hunters or hit by cars. Some environmentalists, scientists and officials think mercury poisoning, a byproduct of the incineration of garbage and medical wastes and the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, threatened panthers and other Everglades wildlife, and one panther's death was attributed to excessive mercury levels.

Making matters worse, there were no other subspecies to breed with. Thousands of miles and millions of people lay between them and their cousins.

So years of inbreeding have resulted in the genetic defects that pose a major problem to the Florida panther's existence. Males were born with defective sperm and one or no testicles; other kittens were born with heart problems and species-threatening diseases.

Give us humans some credit, though. Panthers were vigorously hunted for bounty at the turn of the 20th century, but they were given protection from bounty hunters in the 1950s. In 1958, the game commission declared panthers endangered and gave them complete protection from hunters.

To prevent car-cat collisions, 23 wildlife underpasses were added to Alligator Alley when it became part of Interstate 75. Because of these efforts, it has been close to a decade since a hunter illegally shot a panther, and the panther fatalities caused by cars have slowed. And in 1993, Florida became the first state to regulate the amounts of mercury discharged from incinerators.

But until now, nothing had been done to effectively combat the problems that stemmed from inbreeding. For years, biologists and wildlife officials couldn't see eye to eye on how to save the panther. Last April, nine scientists wrote to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie and slammed the Florida panther recovery program, saying that although Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had recommended a crossbreeding program, some higher-ups in the agency had "conspired to frustrate this objective."

Four years prior, scientists heralded a plan to crossbreed the cats in captivity as the solution to the panther's inbreeding itself to extinction, but federal and state officials stalled. Once the scientists decided that crossbreeding in the wild was the way to save the panther, the government then thought captive crossbreeding wasn't such a bad idea after all. Meanwhile, crossbreeding critics wondered whether the panther-cougar offspring would still be protected as endangered. Panthers were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967 and were part of the original Endangered Species Act when Congress passed it in 1973.

Biologists have tried to argue that the panthers have been hybrids all along because of their previous crossbreeding with their cousins. Even now, today's Texas cougar and Florida panther are very similar animals, according to Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo veterinarian Dr. David Murphy.

"There's little diversity among cougars, mountain lions, pumas and panthers," Murphy said. As for Texas cougars and Florida panthers, he said, "(Anatomically), they're basically the same animal, and genetically, they're not much different, either." Physically, cougars and panthers are the same, except panthers are a little darker, with cowlicks on their backs, crooked tails and a slight bump on the nose. The two subspecies also differ slightly in size and hair length.

Some of the Everglades cats are not "pure" Florida panther now, Murphy said. "Four are only about 97 or 98 percent pure, and the rest is South American puma, another subspecies."

Despite the minuscule differences between the panther and the cougar, the Fish and Wildlife Service still was wary about what implications the crossbreeding program would have on the Endangered Species Act. What would happen if an animal listed as endangered was crossbred with an animal that was not endangered?

In the 1980s, the wildlife service wouldn't allow scientists to crossbreed the endangered dusky seaside sparrow with another kind of sparrow, saying hybrids wouldn't be protected by the Endangered Species Act. So the dusky seaside sparrow was allowed to become extinct. The "dusky rule" was later abolished, but this time around, the hybrid offspring still was a big part of the debate of whether or not to crossbreed the panther and the cougar.

"You can't just look at the biological aspect, but also the legal interpretation, the policy of it," federal panther coordinator Dennis Jordan of the Fish and Wildlife Service said. "Implementation, the Endangered Species Act and other factors must be considered too."

In June, almost two years after the initial proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed that the recovery strategy would be allowed under the Endangered Species Act and said crossbreeding the cousins in the wild would be allowed only if biologists drew up a detailed plan showing how the program would be controlled. A technical subcommittee did just that, and the Florida Panther Interagency Committee approved the plan in early August.

For the next few months, scientists and agencies will be working toward implementation of the plan. Among the tasks at hand are preparing an environmental assessment, adding an amendment to the Recovery Plan, redesigning the captive breeding program and writing genetic management plans.

If everything goes as scheduled, all the legwork and paperwork will be completed by December, and Texas cougars will be roaming South Florida in about six months.

Fewer than 50 panthers are left in Florida, and the Texas genes will be a welcome addition to help the panther get back on its feet. The result will be a healthier, more resilient panther population. But what happens when there are too many panthers crowded into too little habitat? Here's where Phase Two of the panther plan comes in.

Past human growth has diminished undeveloped wilderness _ prime panther land _ and reduced the amount of habitat available to the feline nomads, which can travel up to 200 square miles per month. Deer, raccoons, rabbits and other panther prey have been chased out of their homes by bulldozers, leaving their predators little to eat.

A lack of habitat has caused panthers to turn on each other in fights for the scarce territory available. The biggest killer of panthers is not humans or cars, or even bureaucratic red tape, but other panthers. Government agencies have stepped up their efforts to obtain more land for the cats.

"Right now there is enough habitat to contain a genetically sound population, but we're working aggressively on many fronts," Logan said. "We've been making progress in working with private landowners, with initiatives and incentives for preserving panther land."

Still, much of the restoration's success is on the shoulders of the private landowners. After spending millions of dollars on panther research, the government probably will have to pay some landowners to keep their land undeveloped. The obvious conflict of interest pits development against environment and human against animal, but it's crucial not to lose sight of the fact that we have coexisted successfully in the past, says Bert Wahl, founder of Wildlife Rescue Inc. in Tampa. Wahl's main focus is public education about the Florida panther, and he and his trained captive panther have appeared in schools, in the state capital and even on The Tonight Show.

"People try to pit humans against the environment, but we're all part of the same environment, the same system," Wahl said. "It's impossible to pluck ourselves out of it. We share resources with animals all the time, and if there's a shortage, it's usually our fault, not theirs."

Wahl acknowledged that the process of saving the panthers has been slow and that there was still a long way to go, but had confidence that all the kinks would eventually be ironed out. "It's discouraging how long things take," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of science and a lot of politics, but I think the panther's going to make it. Ultimately, I think we'll do the right thing." He affectionately patted his panther's head.

The panther slowly rose to his feet, towering over us, still crouching. With another indifferent yawn and a flick of his long, black-tipped tail, he padded away, tired of all the attention.