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Dead cat not a Florida panther

The big cat found shot to death just outside of Naples was a Texas cougar _ not one of the 30 to 50 remaining Florida panthers, state wildlife officials said.

But the $5,000 reward still stands for information leading to whoever shot the cougar, which was found Monday, said Capt. Bruce Hamlin of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

The big Florida and Texas cats look so much alike that a poacher wouldn't be able to tell one from the other, said Darrell Land, a biologist with the game commission's Panther Research Team here.

Either way, Florida law protects all panthers and cougars, not just the Florida panther, which is one of the world's most endangered mammals.

Killing one of the animals is a third-degree felony punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

Florida panthers' struggle to survive also is being made more difficult because several of the remaining males are impotent, breeding in captivity has been difficult and the cats' habitat is shrinking.

Land found the dead cougar during an aerial search. The cougar was wearing a collar that transmits a radio signal if the animal stays in one place too long.

"Usually, we buzz them a couple times, and if it's asleep, it starts moving again," Land said.

The cougar _ one of several brought into Florida to restock the Florida panther's gene pool _ was south of Alligator Alley on private property about 3{ miles east of Naples.

Three years ago, Florida authorities imported eight female Texas cougars in hopes of breeding them with Florida panthers. Once the Texas cats reproduce, they are to be returned to Texas, leaving their offspring here, Land said.

It has been 12 years since a panther has been found shot dead in southern Florida, said Jim Huffstodt, a spokesman for the state game commission.

Commission agents have strong leads and evidence in the case, Hamlin said, but are still seeking help from the public in catching the cougar's killer.

In Texas, cougars _ which also are known as mountain lions, panthers or pumas _ are rare, but have no legal protection.

Texans can hunt the cougars any time on private land, said Jane Packard, a Texas A&M University researcher.

_ People with information can call the commission's hotline, Wildlife Alert, at (800) 432-2046, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.