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Panther shot, killed; officials investigating

Until seven years ago, intentional killings of endangered Florida panthers were very rare.
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.

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