As humans get closer and closer to the habitat of the Florida panther, the cats may be getting used to us, increasing danger for both.
Published July 10, 2011|Updated July 11, 2011

Mark Poole walked the fence line at his house near Naples, trying to find the hole that he figured his missing goats must have used to escape. At the back of his property, 300 feet from his house, he saw a dark shape. When he got within 12 feet, it growled at him.

An endangered Florida panther was eating one of his chickens. It was not going to let go, not even when confronted by a human.

Poole backed up fast, until his backyard motion-sensor light popped on and the panther skedaddled, leaping the 4-foot fence with ease. After that, Poole started carrying a shotgun when he went into the backyard, and worrying about his kids catching their school bus down the street.

"It wasn't afraid of me," he said, "and I'm a lot bigger than a fourth-grader."

Poole's unsettling encounter with a panther - which over several weeks

gobbled up three turkeys as well as a dozen goats and more than two dozen chickens - is just one of a rising number of conflicts between humans and Florida's state animal documented by biologists in the past five years.

"More confirmed conflicts were documented" last year "compared to previous years," state and federal biologists noted in a report released recently.

Panthers peeked into a woman's living room window, startled an unwary teenager and repeatedly attacked cats, goats and other domestic animals found around the edges of South Florida suburbia, according to the report. Last year there were 12 incidents where panthers gobbled up domestic animals, and eight panther encounters or sightings by people.

Part of the problem, say biologists, is that there are more than 100 panthers now in a habitat that contains more humans than it used to. There are concerns that the panthers, which once shied away from people, may be changing their ways, adapting to life in a landscape that's no longer a wilderness.

"They're getting used to people, that would be my theory," said Larry Richardson, a wildlife biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles east of Naples.

The once elusive panther is a popular icon, a beloved mascot of schools and sports teams as well as the star of a top-selling license plate. But as panthers venture into yards and peer into houses, finding food to eat and nothing to challenge them, that could change too, Richardson said.

"If there's ever going to come a time when it looks at people that way and thinks, 'You're a person I want as food,' " Richardson said, "well, if that happens, I think the love affair will be over."

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As Florida's population boomed over the past century, the habitat for a lot of wild creatures shrank. Now it's not uncommon to read news stories about bears plopping down by Orlando hot tubs and gators chomping on dogs that wandered too close to a canal.

Until the mid-1990s, so few Florida panthers remained that the only way to see one was at a zoo. Inbreeding in the wild led to genetic defects that threatened to drive them to extinction. State officials brought in eight female Texas cougars, which refreshed the gene pool and sparked a population boom, even as federal officials did nothing to stop construction in panther habitat.

"The growth in the panther numbers put them more consistently in the fringe areas where the people are," explained Darrell Land, panther team leader with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Reports of panther sightings, once a rare and amazing surprise, began growing, and taking on darker tones. The calls coming into the wildlife commission's Naples office tended to be irate.

"Folks are generally kind of upset because an investment has been lost," Land said. "They don't really know - should they be scared? Should they be worried? We try to calm them down."

About 10 a.m. one summer day last year, 13-year-old Roberto Zambrano went into his uncle's back yard near Naples to feed the family's goats. For some reason they didn't come when he called.

Suddenly he was staring right at a panther. The panther fled. The goats were dead.

"I said, 'Oh my God!' and I ran back to get my brothers," Roberto said.

A motion-sensor camera planted by state biologists clicked pictures of a female panther teaching its two kittens how to hunt, said his uncle, Alex Urbena. Now when his nephew visits, Urbena said, "he don't want to go in the back yard any more."

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Since 1900, there have been no confirmed attacks on humans by a Florida panther. But mountain lions have killed two people in Colorado since 1990, said David Baron, whose book, The Beast in the Garden, documented how suburban encroachment into mountain lion habitat led to a lion killing a jogger. Now if an aggressive mountain lion is spotted around Boulder, he said, rangers try to shoo it away with rubber buckshot, or they might shoot it with a tranquilizer dart and relocate it.

"Occasionally," Baron said, "one will be euthanized."

However, Florida panthers have been on the endangered species list since 1967, so killing one is out of the question. Instead, when hungry panthers show up in suburbia, state officials try to show the homeowners how to take precautions so their property will be less attractive to a big predator.

Ultimately, said refuge biologist Richardson, what everyone should do is just be aware of the possibilities.

"Chances are, if a cat's following you, you aren't going to know it," he said. So far, though, "there hasn't been any evidence that we're being looked at as a food source."

As for Mark Poole, he's come to terms with living in panther habitat - sort of. He put barbed wire atop what's now a 9-foot electric fence. He also hooked up his backyard motion sensor lights to a radio that blares loud rap music, figuring "if I couldn't stand it, they couldn't."

He hasn't seen another panther, but he thinks a lot about the one he stumbled on, the one that wouldn't back down.

"Maybe," he said, "it thought I was the intruder."

Times staff writer Marilyn Garateix contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at