Rare Florida panther released back into the wild

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm •  Published: April 3, 2013
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IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES (AP) — An endangered Florida panther rescued as a kitten and raised in captivity has made a rare run back into the wild.

The sandy-colored, 120-pound panther cautiously poked its head out of the crate that wildlife officials drove Wednesday from northeast Florida to Palm Beach County, then it trotted out onto a gravel road in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area.

It built up speed with longer and longer strides, sprinting several hundred yards before veering off into the brush and disappearing.

"To see him run straight like that for such a distance and running free off into the woods makes everything worthwhile," said Dave Onorato, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientist who opened the panther's crate.

The 2-year-old male panther and its sister were rescued by wildlife officials in September 2011 in Collier County after their mother was found dead. They have been raised at the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee since they were 5 months old.

Only around 160 Florida panthers remain, and it's rare for the big cats to be cared for in captivity and then released. Only about 15 kittens or injured adult panthers have been treated at the center and released since it began working with the cats in 1986.

"Having him in the wild with the potential to contribute to reproductive output really is what we need for panther recovery," Onorato said.

The rescued siblings were raised in a series of increasingly larger pens fenced into the forest surrounding the center in northeast Florida. Human interaction was extremely limited, leaving the panthers to hone their instincts hunting rabbits, armadillos and deer released into their pens. Once they got big enough to take down larger animals, they were deemed ready to try their luck in the wild.