Advertisement
  1. News

Panther shot, killed; officials investigating

Until seven years ago, intentional killings of endangered Florida panthers were very rare.
Published Apr. 30, 2015

At first, the dead Florida panther found lying on a Collier County highway last month appeared to be yet another roadkill victim.

But then a Gainesville veterinarian took an X-ray of the carcass and found a different cause of death. The endangered panther had been gunned down. It's the seventh one shot and the sixth killed that way since 2008.

Now U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are offering a $5,000 reward for information, but the odds are against them. Federal investigators have so far solved only two of the six killings.

"At this point we're still following leads, hoping for new leads and asking the public for help," agency spokesman Ken Warren said Wednesday. There is no evidence all of the shootings are connected, he said.

The latest panther to be shot was a 5-year-old male found about 8:30 p.m. March 22 on Immokalee Road about a mile from where it intersects Camp Keas Road. That's a spot northeast of Ave Maria University and the Panther Run Golf Club.

Only about 20 or so panthers wear radio collars that allow biologists to track their movements. This panther wasn't one of those. That means tracking the big cat's movements before its death may be impossible.

Each panther found dead is taken to the University of Florida to be examined by a veterinarian who conducts what is known as a necropsy. The procedure, similar to an autopsy for humans, determines a cause of death and documents any other important physical evidence about the panther.

In this case, the necropsy provided the first clue that someone had shot the panther instead of running it over, according to Diane Hirth of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Although it has been Florida's official state animal since 1981 — not to mention a popular license plate icon and the mascot of Miami's pro hockey team — the panther has had it particularly rough lately.

Panther killings have been rare since the cats were included on the very first federal endangered species list, drawn up in 1967. The first person accused of the crime, Seminole Indian Tribe chairman James C. Billie, was acquitted of killing one in 1983 in what he said was a religious ritual. His defense raised questions about whether he had killed a purebred panther or a cross-breed not protected under the law, prompting the jury to vote for not guilty.

The second man hauled into court for a panther killing was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker, who in 1985 said he shot a panther because he feared it might climb his tree stand and kill him. Although he pleaded guilty, the judge, an avid hunter, refused to put him in jail and instead sentenced him to probation.

That was it until seven years ago, when the pace picked up considerably.

The first of the most recent spate of Florida panther killings didn't occur in Florida. In 2008, a Georgia deer hunter shot a panther that had roamed so far from South Florida that it had crossed the state line. He pleaded guilty to the crime in 2010 and was sentenced to two years of probation, during which he could not hunt anywhere, and fined $2,000.

Then came a string in South Florida, beginning in Collier County in February 2009. Federal officials have not disclosed anything more about that cat — including exactly where in Collier County it was found or how it was killed — except to say that the death is under investigation.

In April 2009, a female panther was found shot in rural Hendry County, just outside the boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve. At 2 years old, the dead panther had been just about ready to breed for the first time. No further information has been disclosed in that death either.

Then, in October 2009, a panther was found dead near the Ave Maria development in Collier County. That one had been shot with an arrow.

A three-year investigation led to the conviction of a bow hunter named Todd "Scuttlebutt" Benfield, who in court admitted shooting the panther with an arrow "because I thought the Florida panther was competing and interfering with my hunting." Benfield was sentenced to 60 days' home confinement, 30 days' intermittent custody, three years' probation and a $5,000 fine.

And then, in December 2013, an 18-month-old female panther was found shot to death amid the slash pine and saw palmetto of a remote area of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress spokesman Bob DeGross said last week that he had no new information about that shooting.

One panther has survived being shot. In November, a passing motorist alerted wildlife officials about an injured panther. They discovered someone had fired a shotgun at the cat's face, blinding it.

That panther, now known as Uno, became the first patient at the new veterinary care hospital at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. Last month, its rehabilitation complete, Uno was moved to the Naples Zoo, where it will remain for the rest of its life.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Authorities found 29-year-old Sharee Bradley stabbed to death on Aug. 5. The chief says she had three children; the 12-year-old and 3-year-old were found safe, but Nevaeh had disappeared. Sumter Police Department/Facebook
    DNA from the remains found Friday has been matched to Nevaeh Adams, Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark told reporters.
  2. Cars back up at a Tampa intersection last October, not long before Hillsborough County voters approved a one-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. This week, local officials detailed how the money would be spent, if the tax survives a legal challenge before the Florida Supreme Court. URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Local governments have plans for $527 million in projects. But the Florida Supreme Court would need to clear the way.
  3. FILE - In this Sunday, April 22, 2018, file photo, a statue of a chained man is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. Facing an impeachment inquiry that he and supporters claim is illegal, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, that the process is a lynching. Some Republicans agree, but the relatives of actual lynching victims don’t. BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    Made in a tweet that drew backing from some Republican supporters including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Trump’s claim was ill-informed at best and racist at worst, they said.
  4. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Damien Wiggins Jr. was found with a gunshot wound in the parking lot of a vacant business on Haines Road.
  5. FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz listens during a status check on his case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. As his death penalty trial draws closer, a hearing is set for school shooting defendant Cruz in the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people. The hearing Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz. AMY BETH BENNETT  |  AP
    The hearing Wednesday likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz.
  6. FILE - This undated file photo released by the FBI shows 3-year-old Kamille McKinney, who police say has been missing since she was abducted while attending a birthday party on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. Investigators searching through garbage found the body of McKinney, who was missing more than a week, and authorities are charging two people with murder, police said Tuesday, Oct. 22. AP
    The child, known as “Cupcake” to relatives, vanished while outside a birthday party on Oct. 12. Investigators know of no link between the suspects and the girl or her family, police say.
  7. An aerial view as police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, in Thurock, South England, early Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. Police in southeastern England said that 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck container believed to have come from Bulgaria. UK POOL  |  AP
    “We are in the process of identifying the victims, however, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process," Essex Police Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said.
  8. A top U.S. diplomat, William Taylor, departs the Capitol after testifying in the Democrats' impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  |  AP
    Democrats said they were shocked and disturbed by what they heard. A look at the key takeaways from Taylor’s statement, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
  9. A Florida black bear (not this one) was found at a Marion County school and removed. CARLTON WARD JR  |  Carlton Ward Jr
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  10. Weeki Wachee Springs main entrance VAUGHN HUGHES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    From its iconic mermaids to its signature statue, Weeki Wachee Springs will be considered for historic designation.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement