The two-year-old male panther peeked cautiously out of the open crate placed on a dirt track between a canal and thick brush. It looked both ways, then dashed down the road like a thoroughbred in the final lap of the Triple Crown, disappearing from sight within seconds.
“Wasn’t that beautiful!” exclaimed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member Ron Bergeron of Weston. “A great day for the Everglades and a great day for the panther!”
Bergeron had a front row seat for Wednesday’s release of the 120-pound male in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area, which borders Palm Beach, Broward and Hendry counties. A throng of media representatives watched from the other side of the canal, about 50 yards away.
FWC south regional director Chuck Collins said the site was chosen carefully.
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“There’s game. There’s deer. There’s a lot of hogs,” Collins said. “It’s not crowded with panthers, so hopefully it will limit interspecies aggression and enable him to find a female.”
The freed panther and its sister were rescued as 5-month-old kittens by FWC biologists near Fort Myers in September 2011 after their mother was found dead. They were taken to the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, where they were raised in a large habitat pen with minimal contact with people.
The female cat was released in early February in the Picayune Strand State Forest near Naples. Biologists who have been tracking her say she is doing fine.
An estimated 100 to 160 adult and sub-adult panthers live in South Florida.