Catching a glimpse of an endangered Florida panther is no easy feat, but you’ll be better equipped after reading our guide to the feline phantom, its growing population, and where to find it.
There are now an estimated 100 to 180 Florida panthers living in the wild, compared to just 30 in the 1970s. That’s a true conservation success story, albeit an ongoing one, says Jessica Sutt, a refuge specialist with Southwest Florida Gulf Coast Refuge Complex. Sutt is one of many continuing to work to educate the public and keep the panther population estimates rising.
To actually find a panther in the wild, though, you need more than luck and a hunch. Sutt says there are park rangers who have spent a decade patrolling the sprawling wildlife refuges that occupy much of southern Florida without seeing one in the flesh. Here’s a guide to help you lock eyes with a rare beast.
Tips to Spotting a Florida Panther
Keep your distance
You don’t want to spook a cat if you happen to get close enough to see one. Ensure it has an easy escape route if it gets nervous. If your own nerves start jangling, don’t worry; Sutt said there has never been a panther attack on a human in the wild.
Avoid the Middle of the Day
Much like big game in Africa, these cats tend to be most active in early morning and evening, away from the day’s heat.
Should you be lucky enough to hear something rustling, chances are you won’t be able to get a great view with just your eyes; ensure you allow the cats a wide berth. If you’re an avid wildlife watcher, keep an eye out for other rare treasures, like the ethereal ghost orchid.
Look For the Signs
You’ll need to utilize a guide like this to figure out the telltale signs of panthers, but chatting up a local to get a sense of claw marks and cries is a great start.
Don’t Just Scan the Woods
Unlike your house cat, panthers are excellent and avid swimmers, so check the waterways of southern Florida and you may catch sight of one.
Where to Look
The premier panther spot in southern Florida lies 53 miles east of Naples. This sprawling ecosystem and family-friendly park is best explored after a conversation with an on-site wildlife biologist, who can tell you where the cats have been sighted recently.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve
The Janes Scenic Drive cuts through the heart of this swamp forest and travels 14 miles through prime panther country just a scenic 31 mile drive east from Naples proper. Just be sure to drive slowly in deference to the wildlife crossing and basking in the sun along the path.
This zoo in the heart of Naples is home to Uno, a young panther found blinded by buckshot last fall and rehabilitated on-site. The graceful cat remains curious and lively despite his lack of eyesight, and with the slim odds you’ll encounter a panther in the wild, this is a recommended visit.
Homosassa Springs State Park
A huge enclosure houses Yuma, a bounding young cub recovered from the wild freezing cold and near death in 2014. This walkable park about an hour north of Tampa is also home to a ton of animals you won’t see even in Florida’s boundless wilderness, including a full-grown rhinoceros.
Where to Stay Edgewater Beach Hotel