Keeping Panthers and People From Colliding

  • Rebecca Galligan with her dogs Roscoe and Sable in their new panther-proof pet house. Galligan and her husband lost their dog Riley to a panther, so they had this enclosure built to keep their pets safe. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

People are killing Florida panthers.
Usually it’s not intentional. But
Rebecca Williams reports biologists
are trying to figure out how to keep
panthers and people from running into
each other:


People are killing Florida panthers.
Usually it’s not intentional. But
Rebecca Williams reports biologists
are trying to figure out how to keep
panthers and people from running into
each other:

There are only about 100 Florida panthers left in the wild. They’re endangered.

If you live down here, it’s one thing to know there are panthers hunting for food in the Everglades. But it’s something else when they visit your backyard.

(sound of tropical birds singing)

Rebecca Galligan and her husband didn’t give panthers all that much thought. Until one day, when they came home from work, and found their dog Riley had been killed.

“The scratches on the body and the way he’d been killed it was pretty obvious it was some sort of wild cat.”

Two days earlier something had killed their neighbor’s sheep. Then a dozen goats got killed.

A biologist decided the predator was a panther. In the past few years in South Florida, more people have been losing pets and farm animals to hungry panthers.

Galligan calling to dog: “C’mere, have a seat!” (Roscoe sniffs the microphone)

Now, when she’s away, Rebecca Galligan keeps her dogs Roscoe and Sable in a little panther-proof house. It’s made out of steel and chain link fencing.

“There’s so much nature and wildlife, and so I mean, we just can’t destroy it all because we want to be safe. That’s why we had this pen built, so we can keep the animals a little safer from the animals that live around us.”

And a lot of people here think the panthers have a right to stick around.

But some say there’s a gaping hole in the law that’s supposed to protect panthers.

The panther has never had what’s called critical habitat set aside. That means developers don’t have to consider the land panthers need to survive. Panther habitat or not, they can just build.

So panthers are getting crowded out by subdivisions and huge new cities.

Andrew McElwaine is president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. He’s asked the Obama Administration to officially give panthers that habitat.

“So, the more habitat we take away, we’re forcing panthers to move out. We’re getting reports of panthers in urban areas of Southwest Florida looking for somewhere to live, if you will.”

And, as people move in, panthers are becoming roadkill.

Last year 10 panthers were killed by cars. So far, this year, six more panthers have been killed.

(sound of cars whizzing by)

“There are some panther tracks here. There’s one there… and there…”

Mark Lotz is a panther biologist. We’re hanging out in an underpass below the highway. It was built for panthers. Miles of fences run along the highway and make a funnel, so panthers have to go below the road.

Lotz says there are 36 panther underpasses on this stretch of highway. And he says fewer panthers get hit here. But underpasses are expensive – about $2 million each. And giving panthers room to live isn’t always even that simple.

Lotz says the biggest challenge is getting people to adapt to panthers. To him, the cats are majestic. But he also knows a lot of people think they’re terrifying. Somebody actually shot a panther a few months ago.

“Naysayers could make the argument there’s no panthers in Pennsylvania or any other eastern state and things are going just fine. But then I would counter – look what’s happening with deer populations there. You know, panthers are part of the ecosystem. Without them there’s just something missing. In a way part of the wildness disappears.”

But if panthers keep running out of space, they could disappear.

We talked to the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. And we asked him whether he’d set aside critical habitat for panthers.

“Yeah, we’ll have to get back to you on that.”

That’s been the kind of response he’s given to other reporters too.

Giving panthers habitat protection would mean more obstacles for developers. And, in this economy, that could be pretty unpopular.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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