Florida Panther Update

Panther Update is a monthly newsletter made possible through the efforts of the following agencies: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) www.floridapanthernet.org, Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP) www.nps.gov/bicy, and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (FPNWR) www.fws.gov/floridapanther. Updates are compiled and distributed by Roxann Hanson, Refuge Volunteer.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Handling FP175’s Kittens: a Volunteer’s Perspective

Panther Kitten Siblings K319 and K320 in BCNP’s Bear Island Unit

Handling FP175’s Kittens:  a Volunteer’s Perspective
Story by Roxann Hanson, FPNWR Volunteer
Photos by Ralph Arwood, Volunteer In Parks, BCNP

Based on four years of experience assisting with Florida panther outreach efforts, I would wholeheartedly recommend volunteer work for wildlife/habitat conservation to anyone.  The rewards in terms of personal growth, friendships, and sense of accomplishment are invaluable.  Plus sometimes, when you least expect it, there can be the most inspiring moments.  I would like to share a few of those with you in the story which follows.  

The surprise call came in the early afternoon of January 27, 2011.  I was on the 14the hole at La Playa golf course in Naples, Florida and pulled out my cell phone to quiet the message beeper.  I had forgotten to turn off the phone for this golf match and decided to quickly check the message while the other players took their shots.  The Big Cypress National Preserve panther research team had located FP175’s den in Bear Island Unit, north of I75 and I was invited to observe the kitten work-up!  I tried to stay calm and finish the hole before disrupting the other players to take a hasty leave from the golf course.  Needless to say, I missed the putt and lost the hole!  Needless to say, I didn’t care.       

I was headed for an experience of a lifetime!

Our starting point was a rest stop off the freeway, where we organized and donned our gear.  I carried a backpack and fanny pack with equipment for the team which on that day consisted of National Park Service biologists Deborah Jansen, John Kellam, and volunteer/photographer Ralph Arwood.  I was given a briefing and map by Ralph who explained how the den had been located and what to expect procedurally. 

We started walking through a sparsely wooded area:   first on a dry trail, then a muddy one, then through clear water, a few inches deep.  As we hiked John expressed why I was afforded this privilege, “Roxann you are here because we appreciate the volunteer work you do for the Florida Panther.”  After about a mile, the landscape opened up and before us stood a cypress dome.  The den was located on the other side of the dome.  As we continued, Ralph pointed out the location where FP175 had denned a few months earlier.  But those kittens hadn’t survived and FP175 subsequently produced a new litter.  Now we were very close.  We set down our gear near the “Biologist in a Box”, a device which allows remote surveillance of the VHS signals used to track a collared panther mom’s locations while denning.  When she leaves the den to hunt for food, the biologists can safely enter the area and search for her kittens. 
Deborah showed us the landmarks she referenced when she had previously estimated the den location.  I was left behind to listen for “mom’s” radio signals in case of a surprise return, while the others crawled into palmetto thickets and lifted vegetation, foraging for the well-hidden kittens .  About forty minutes later, I heard the signal, a “hoot” (an animal-like call which minimizes disturbance to the wildlife).   It was their communication to each other that the kittens had been found.  

I was allowed to wade through dense saw palmettos and then crawl between woody shrub stems to ultimately peer in at the cool and shadowy, hollowed-out space.   Ralph, a retired physician, was crouched inside facing the two kittens and photographing them in their natural state.  I could barely make out their little heads in the dark and realized what remarkable skill and technology is involved in finding these well hidden treasures.   Ralph then handed to me about five pound’s worth of wiggling fur, with a reminder to protect the kitten’s face as I held it close while fighting my way back out through thick vegetation. 

Deborah organized us into teams for the kitten work-up.  I was to assist John.  Clean towels were arranged on the grass.  The four of us knelt around the towels with bio-sampling and veterinarian supplies scattered at our sides.  I gently set the kitten down and nervously donned the required rubber gloves.  By the end of the work-up those gloves were in shreds from the already sharp claws of this three-week-old male kitten, now officially recorded as K319.  At this early age, K319 was exhibiting his wildness and his fighting survival instincts by hissing and soft growling with claws extended.  At times he would attempt a charmingly “fierce” swipe with his little paw.  His smell was gamey and his fur downy; very fine, in splotches of tawny and black, fading to a grayish color around the paws. 

John began the workup by checking along the kitten’s tail for kinks.  Then he searched for a whorl of hair along the kitten's back:   the infamous "cowlick" of inbred panthers when their population was near extinction.  Next a transponder chip was inserted under the skin. K319’s fur was swabbed twice with alcohol, then with an antimicrobial.  To my relief, the cub showed no reaction to this needle stab.  He also tolerated well having his little belly shaved, some fur pulled out, and pinhead-sized skin samples punched out of his ears.

The most enjoyable task for me (and probably K319 as well) was feeding him the deworming medicine with a small plastic syringe containing a thick mustard-yellow liquid which supposedly tastes like banana.   Very gradually, I pressed the fluid into the side of K319’s mouth.   A small amount.   I waited for him to chomp and lick before pressing again.

With the work-up completed, the siblings were set down together upon the trampled grass.  They quieted and their heads turned in perfect unison, blue eyes tracking Ralph’s movements back and forth across the site as the team cleared the area of any sign of human presence.  I positioned myself to block the piercing rays of the late-afternoon sun and guarded FP175’s kittens while they relaxed in the shade waiting to be returned to their den.   I wanted to freeze time and hold on to this moment forever.
   Roxann Hanson with Deborah Jansen and FP175’s Kittens

My hope is that this story inspires you to lend a hand with preservation of the natural world by doing volunteer work. The possibilities are endless and the rewards, well, may surprise you.   Here are a few resources to help get you started:

Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP)

Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (FPNWR)
Email Sandy Mickey, Park Ranger: sandra_mickey@fws.gov                                                  

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About Me

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Naples, Florida, United States
Roxann Hanson compiles, edits, and distributes the monthly newsletter "Florida Panther Update" as a volunteer for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Florida Panther NWR c/o U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 3860 Tollgate Boulevard, Suite 300 Naples, FL 34114