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The Wanderer
[Times art: Don Morris]

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


He crouched in the dark near the river's edge, hidden from the lights of the nearby campground. He had avoided this small outpost of civilization for a week -- hiding in the woods during the 80-degree days, emerging in the cool of the evening to continue his search.

Now he was ready to take the plunge.

Every few seconds the red bulb of a navigational marker flashed above the rippling waves, then blinked out, leaving only the full moon to show the way. He picked his way down the sloping bank, brushing by holly bushes and crunching across seashells.

With a splash, Panther 62 slipped into the chilly current of the Caloosahatchee River and paddled toward the northern shore.

* * *

For years, Florida panthers have been backed into a few swampy counties south of the Caloosahatchee as if they were prisoners, with the river as the cell door.

Young male panthers in search of turf to call their own would bump up against the river and, finding no way across, would turn back. They would end up someplace where an older panther was already in control, and the two would fight, often to the death.

Experts worried that geographic isolation guaranteed the panthers' extinction -- until April 11, 1998, when Panther 62 changed everything.

He was one of a litter of three male kittens, born in rural Collier County. When he and his siblings were just balls of spotted fur, a biologist snapped the only picture of No. 62. Later the trio were captured, fitted with radio collars so biologists could track them, then released back into the wild.

When Panther 62 was old enough to split from his mother, he headed north to stake out his own territory and became what biologists call a wanderer. He was five months shy of his second birthday when he reached the Ortona Lock and Dam on the Caloosahatchee, where snowbirds park their RVs so they can watch million-dollar yachts cruise through the locks bound for Palm Beach.

About 1,000 feet west of the campground is a spot where the old Atlantic Coast Line trestle once carried freight trains across the river. The trestle and rails were torn out years ago. Biologists believe Panther 62 followed the overgrown railroad grade straight to where the old trestle stood. The river there is narrow, about 150 yards across, and the slope of the banks is gentler, making it the ideal spot to cross.

"He hit the river and spent a few days looking for a land bridge," said Darrell Land of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "When he didn't find one he just said, "What the hell!' and swam across."

In the two years since, Panther 62 has ricocheted around the state like a pinball, crossing highways, dodging bulldozers and demonstrating that, as one expert put it, "All of Florida is panther habitat." Even the outskirts of Disney World.

* * *

The big cat emerged from the water and shook himself. He clambered up the bank, skirted the scattered stucco homes and turned west into palmetto-fringed ranch land, where he could feast on feral hogs.

Soon he was prowling the wet prairies of Fisheating Creek. Though he could dine on an abundance of deer there, something did not suit him. He kept moving.

As spring turned to summer, he angled north and began paralleling U.S. 27 as it climbs the spine of the state. Near Sebring he spent one warm day beneath a billboard, in a patch of woods by a mobile home park.

High above him a Cessna 172 circled, its engine whining like a riding mower. State biologists in the plane followed the wanderer's radio signals. They chuckled when they saw his latest refuge.

Mobile home park residents think of that woodsy patch as their nature trail, Land said. "Imagine if one of those residents was taking his poodle for a walk and had that cat step out on them!"

* * *

Researchers at the University of Florida recently mapped the parks, preserves and privately owned land between Fort Myers and Orlando to show how it could be strung together into a wildlife corridor for wide-ranging animals.

Panther 62 followed their map as if he had a copy stapled to his collar. "He hopscotched from one proposed preserve to another," said veteran panther biologist Dave Maehr.

The big flaw in this map of contiguous wilderness is a cross-hatch of highways. Dozens of South Florida panthers have fallen to four-wheeled predators. Somehow Panther 62 scampered across U.S. 27 and several state roads unscathed.

As he closed in on Orlando's thicket of busy highways, the odds rose that his journey would end under the tires of an 18-wheeler. As Land put it, "I fully expected some Saturday morning I would get a call that he was lying by a road somewhere."

* * *

For months the wanderer had been on the move -- dodging cars, avoiding people, traveling only in the deep velvet night. Near dawn on a July morning, he found a place to stop, a place as different as could be from where he grew up.

He stalked across ridges of white sand, their pale desolation brightened by yellow buttons and catclaw briars. He came to a dried-out wetland, thick with ferns and stiff saw palmetto. Shaded by bay trees, he holed up there as day broke, sleeping for hours.

Over the next few months he spent his nights exploring this new domain. In the early morning mists he would melt back into the swamp, back to the place he was fast making his home.

* * *

Panther 62 had settled into a little-known slice of scrub called Catfish Creek State Preserve. Old-timers dubbed it the Tub Hills because of its sinklike ponds, clear and cool. It sits on some 5,000 acres of ancient sand dunes bordering Lake Pierce in Polk County, an hour east of Tampa.

The sole state employee at Catfish Creek is Pat Mitchell. He lives in the shadow of a fire tower with his wife and three children. More than once, tracks or radio signals showed that Panther 62 had crept within a few hundred yards of their home.

But Mitchell only saw his neighbor once.

He was tooling along in his truck when a deer leaped in front of him. As Mitchell slammed on the brakes, he saw a flash of tawny fur. He got out of his truck and found a panther track.

After Panther 62 set up housekeeping at Catfish Creek, biologists would fly to Polk County three times a week to check his location using the radio signals. Through the changing seasons, even when the winter winds sent the temperature tumbling to well below freezing, Panther 62 stuck to Catfish Creek.

Still the wanderer wandered a bit. He roamed over to nearby Lake Kissimmee State Park, the Tiger Creek Nature Preserve, even the Disney Wilderness Preserve. Invariably, he returned to Catfish Creek.

While Panther 62 was staying put, other wanderers were following his path.

In May 1999, a second young male panther swam the Caloosahatchee near the Ortona Lock. Four months later he was killed by a car as he tried to cross U.S. 27. In April of this year, a third male swam the river. A few days later, biologists found his body near Fisheating Creek. They don't know what killed him.

The fact that other Puma concolor coryi were willing to risk crossing the river suggests that a rebounding South Florida panther population -- between 70 and 100 cats, up from about 50 in the 1980s -- is getting squeezed by development wiping out its remaining habitat.

"We're producing a lot of cats, and the young ones are looking for new territory," said Jim Krakowski of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Right now we're saturated with older males. So the young ones are always looking for a place."

Now Panther 62's river crossing is recognized as more than just an anomaly. The wanderer is seen as a trailblazer, suggesting there could someday be a panther colony in Central Florida.

"Panther 62 has demonstrated that Florida has panther habitat extending from the Caloosahatchee River almost up to Orlando," said Maehr, author of The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore.

Because 62 stuck around Catfish Creek so much, biologists wondered if he was already launching his own panther colony. There were unconfirmed reports of a female panther with kittens. But the state's best panther trackers scoured the area and found nothing.

Some experts suggested that the state play matchmaker: Transplant a South Florida female up to Catfish Creek, so the wanderer would wander no more. But the people in charge of making those decisions were reluctant to take such a dramatic step.

"It's not easy to just drop a cat off somewhere," Krakowski said.

Last fall, Panther 62 turned 3, the age at which male panthers reach sexual maturity. With no female to hold him in one spot, the big cat began roaming farther from his Catfish Creek base.

One morning in early March, Land flew up from South Florida on a regular tracking run for Panther 62 and found him far north of his usual hangout. He had somehow crossed I-4 and gone to ground near the old Boardwalk and Baseball theme park, in a small swamp that offered the only natural cover for miles. He clearly was looking for love in all the wrong places.

"The whole area was being bulldozed for some kind of housing development," Land said. "He was completely surrounded by bulldozers."

* * *

One night in May, 62 roared out of Catfish Creek like a teenager late to pick up his prom date.

He started northeast, then veered southward, cutting across Florida's Turnpike. Over the next two months he went on what Land called "a rocket run," covering some 200 miles as he zoomed from the shores of Lake Hell'n'Blazes, at the headwaters of the St. Johns River, to Lake Washington, a few miles outside Melbourne, before looping south again. He crossed back over Florida's Turnpike and even swam the Kissimmee River.

Eventually his path took him back to the Caloosahatchee, nearly 20 miles west of where he had crossed. The biologists tailing him wondered if he was trying to rejoin the main population of panthers and find a mate.

And they wondered how much longer they could follow him. Time was running out.

* * *

The last batch of batteries that biologists had put in the panthers' radio collars had turned out to be defective. They had spent the spring recapturing the panthers whose collars were about to conk out and replacing the batteries.

Panther 62 had one of the bad batteries. Trappers were about to go after him in Catfish Creek when the big cat bolted.

"We were planning a pre-emptive strike, but I think through ESP he picked up on what we were planning," Land said. "Lord knows what put the burr under his butt. Without the Vulcan mind meld, I don't think we can know."

They tagged along behind him for 200 miles, waiting for him to settle down again. By the time he dallied in the Telegraph Swamp in Charlotte County, it was late June. Land's boss, Brian Millsap, decided to delay the capture for fear the heat and stress might kill Panther 62.

"It's too hot to safely catch the cats then," Millsap said. "I'm the one who made this call. I'll take the heat for it."

After a couple of weeks, the wanderer was on the move again. He rambled north through the flat green ranch land of eastern Charlotte. By July 24 he was crossing the DeSoto County line. That's where the signals stopped.

"Lord knows where he is now," Land said.

* * *

In his truck, Pat Mitchell carries a plaster cast of Panther 62's paw print, in case the wanderer returns to Catfish Creek. If he spots a fresh track, he can whip out the plaster cast and compare the two.

So far, he hasn't needed it.

The state's panther trackers stop by from time to time. They patrol the preserve on all-terrain vehicles, jouncing along at about 5 mph, scanning the ground for any sign of a panther. They have come up empty.

There is one intriguing possibility. In July 1999, while Panther 62 was at Catfish Creek, someone found a large feline track on a preserve next to Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County. Experts confirmed they were left by a Florida panther, one apparently without a radio collar.

No one has seen that uncollared panther. Though panther experts believe it is a small male, some hold out hope it's female, and that the wanderer will find her.

Short of putting his mug on milk cartons, there's not much anyone can do to pin down where 62 is. He could be skulking around back yards in Brandon, stalking cartoon mice at Disney or roaming the grounds of the governor's mansion in Tallahassee.

Panther 62 has left Floridians with more than just a few paw prints. He has left a lesson about how urban Florida and wild Florida can co-exist.

"Our vision is that we can have both Floridas and they can be compatible," said Julie Morris, chairwoman of the state wildlife agency. "The mosaic will fit together in a way that will allow wildlife to thrive while we have a place to live too.

"It's optimistic that we could have that, but the dispersal of this panther shows that we could. It's possible."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

* * *

For information on the natural history, habitat and habits of the Florida panther, visit the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Web site, Florida Panther Net, at http://www.panther.state.fl.us/.

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