As state wildlife biologists continue investigating a mysterious ailment that leaves panthers and bobcats unable to walk, a pair of panther kittens is providing one bright spot.
The pair, two five-month-old males named Pepper and Cypress, are the offspring of a female panther that was suffering so badly that state biologists decided to euthanize it. But the kittens so far are showing no symptoms of the disorder, according to Cynthia Stringfield, the senior vice president of animal health at ZooTampa.
“They’re doing great,” Stringfield said Wednesday. “They run and pounce and play ... We hope this means they’re in the clear."
Pepper and Cypress, born in June, have been living at ZooTampa since August, Stringfield said. They have been growing steadily and now weigh about 35 pounds each.
Three months ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced an investigation into the cause of what might be afflicting panthers and bobcats seen on trail cameras in Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties.
Photos and video from several trail cameras at places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples had captured images of eight panthers — primarily kittens — and one adult bobcat showing signs of wobbly legs that made them unable to walk normally.
State wildlife officials said they were testing for various potential toxins, including rat poison, as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies.
Ralph Arwood, a licensed pilot and retired surgeon in Naples who has become a dedicated photographer of panthers in the wild, began sounding the alarm about weak-legged cats on his blog last year. Other people provided the state with video footage of ailing cats, state officials said.
Meanwhile, “results of post mortem examination of several affected animals ... ultimately documented neurologic disease,” Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for the state’s science laboratory, said then. She said she hasn’t gotten an update on the investigation.
Kerr said a necropsy on the mother of the rescued kittens is incomplete.
Although free of symptoms so far, Pepper and Cypress will remain under observation indefinitely. They will be put on display to the public in two to four weeks, Stringfield said.
The zoo hopes to keep them together for the remainder of their lives, she said. They have been bottle-fed by humans since they were a few weeks old, so they will never be released back into the wild.