Working in Defenders’ Florida office, panthers tend to be on my mind more often than not. But though I’ve worked over 7 years to help bring the big cat to recovery, I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. Until now.
This Tuesday, I was driving along the Four Sections road in Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. Accompanied by wildlife ecologist and expert wildlife tracker Sue Morse and longtime Defenders supporter Barbara Long, we were coming to the close of a busy few days, having hosted a successful Big Cats of North America presentation and a weekend workshop to train Panther Citizen Assistance Taskforce volunteers to help Defenders respond to reports about panthers. We were driving in the area’s prime panther habitat. It was almost 5pm, the witching hour for animal activity. Lots of deer were out foraging and the three of us had our eyes peeled for movement along the side of the road.
Suddenly, a panther bounded in front of our car. Uncollared, the cat was a beautiful tawny color, probably a female or young male. It wasn’t moving very fast, but its three leaps across the road lasted only seconds— I barely had enough time to shout “Panther!” to my companions before it disappeared from sight. I was speechless, and without the two of them with me, I might have been convinced I made the whole thing up.
Our brief encounter with the cat couldn’t have been more timely. Before our welcome interruption, we’d been on our way to the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners meeting, where Commissioners were voting to designate 5.25 miles of CR 832/Keri Road as a slow speed nighttime panther zone.
Keri Road (pronounced kee-rye) is a rural east-west road that bisects the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. A documented danger zone for panthers and other wildlife, nine panthers are known to have been killed by vehicles on CR 832 since 1996, six of which within the state forest. While the road has a posted speed zone of 55 mph, many drivers exceed that speed. (In fact, when the Hendry County Engineering Department recorded vehicle speeds on the road in August 2011, they found that 85 percent of motorists drove 65-70 mph, despite the posted speed limit of 55 mph.) Securing a nighttime slow zone for the stretch of road is the first of many actions Defenders and a coalition of stakeholders (including local landowners, businesses and residents) have been working on in order to improve passage for panthers and other wildlife across this stretch of highway.
Our panther must have been a good omen, for that night, the Board voted to approve the slow speed zone! The designation will not only allow the state to enforce the speed limit in Okaloacoochee Slough on Keri Road, but it will help to increase awareness about fostering safe passage for panthers and other wildlife. Both steps are key to helping panthers throughout the state continue down the road to recovery, and ensuring my first panther sighting won’t be my last.
Only 100-160 Florida panthers remain in the wild.See how Defenders is working to protect them and the places they call home.