It is rare to see a Florida panther because they are secretive, nocturnal animals with an estimated population of 100 to 120 cats. Even more difficult to see are panther kittens, hidden in dens in dense saw palmetto or ferns.
Biologists at Big Cypress capture and radio collar adult panthers and also handle kittens at dens when they are around three weeks old. This makes it possible for biologists to gather important data related to the health of the population and to identify potential future conservation needs.
On February 16th, female Florida panther #145 (FP145) left her den to stalk prey. Since her den was near a road and easily accessible in the 729,000-acre preserve, panther project staff saw it as an opportunity to take additional Big Cypress staff who have dedicated much of their career to the preserve.
Pete Roth has worked in the maintenance division as a heavy-duty equipment operator for 29 years and his wife, Dawnmarie Snow-Roth, has worked for the park for 21 years, currently with the maintenance division and previously for the administration division. J D Lee had been the chief ranger at Big Cypress for four years and returned in 2009 as deputy superintendent. He was at his desk at 7 a.m. when Deborah Jansen, wildlife biologist and project lead, asked him if he wanted to go see some panther kittens. Lee rummaged through his closet and found some field pants and boots and all were on their way.
Pete, Dawnmarie, and JD slogged through a dwarf cypress forest with the research team for 15 minutes and then waited patiently in a small dry area for the panther team to find the kittens. Then they heard biological technician John Kellam’s “whoop,” the signal to the other searchers that he had found the kittens.
Soon three kittens were carried out of the den. Everyone shared in weighing, sexing, and marking the kittens with a microchip amidst the “oohs” and “aahs” as the kittens altered between spitting and purring. There were two males and a female, each weighing a healthy four pounds.
National Park Service employees who have worked at Big Cypress know that interdivisional cooperation benefits all park goals. Resource management staff especially recognize that they could not do their work without the support of the other divisions. Sharing panther kittens with Pete, Dawnmarie, and JD was their way of saying “we appreciate and thank you for all you’ve contributed to Big Cypress”.