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Apparent illness among panthers and bobcats under investigation

One possible cause of their condition: rat poison

ST. PETERSBURG — A year after a South Florida nature photographer pointed out that panthers and bobcats seen on his trail cameras appeared to have difficulty walking, the state wildlife commission announced Monday that it is investigating what’s ailing the big cats.

One possible cause: rat poison.

As of this month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has confirmed that one panther and one bobcat suffered neurological damage from an unknown cause, according to a news release from the state agency.

Photos and video from several trail cameras at places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples have captured images of eight panthers — primarily kittens — and one adult bobcat showing signs or illness or injury.

So far, the cats displaying the wobbly legs appear to be isolated to three areas in Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties. The wildlife agency is asking the public for any other photos or video that might show similar behavior elsewhere.

“Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out," said Gil McRae, who runs the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, which is investigating. “A definitive cause has not yet been determined.”

The laboratory is testing for various potential toxins, including rat poison, as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies. A spokeswoman for the lab, Michelle Kerr, said the agency has no information about where the rat poison might be coming from, if it is the culprit.

Local cattle ranchers have frequently complained about panthers killing their heifers, and the state has documented a number of cases in which someone has shot panthers, either wounding or killing them.

McRae, in the news release, said the agency is working with both the federal government and international experts on trying to figure out what’s causing the condition.

“We’re all really worried” about the possible impact of this on the endangered state animal, said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon of Florida. About 200 panthers now prowl through what’s left of the state’s wilderness, up from the estimated 20-30 that were left in 1995.

Ralph Arwood, a licensed pilot and retired surgeon in Naples who has become a dedicated photographer of panthers in the wild, began raising the alarm about weak-legged cats on his blog last year.

Arwood was one of “multiple members of the Southwest Florida community” who “submitted video footage of two panther kittens exhibiting abnormal gait in their hindend,” Kerr said in response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times. “Additional footage from other community members also documented a bobcat with an abnormal gait and results of post mortem examination of several affected animals...ultimately documented neurologic disease.”

“They were stumbling around all over,” Arwood said in an interview Monday.

Earlier still photos that the agency reviewed “suggest that an affected kitten may have been documented in 2017,” Kerr said. But this year “additional reports have been received, suggesting that this is a broader issue.”

Arwood said in an email to his followers this weekend that at one point last year Wraithmell asked him to take the blog posts down. He said she did that at the request of the wildlife commission, “so that the team would not be distracted by questions from the public.” The photos he was sharing came from trails in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which is owned and managed by Audubon.

Arwood said he refused to take the posts down, but agreed to stop posting new items until the mystery was solved. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Kerr said Arwood’s account of what happened is inaccurate. Wraithmell denied the wildlife commission asked her to get Arwood to take down his blog posts. Arwood, told of the denials, laughed them off.

Wraithmell said she had worried Arwood’s blog posts “gave the appearance that Audubon was sharing incomplete information” while the investigation was going on, so she asked him to stop.

This is not the first time the wildlife commission has detected signs of sick Florida panthers. In 2001, a panther ate someone’s pet cat that was infected with feline leukemia. The disease does not bother regular cats but it’s fatal to panthers. Soon the virus spread to other panthers. Ultimately five of them died.

Wildlife commission biologists contained the outbreak by extraordinary means. The state’s panther capture team members went out and caught every panther they could find and inoculated every single one of them against the virus. Doing that took four years.