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Tourists encounter Florida panther at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Reporter: Breana Ross Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:

Two tourists had a rare encounter with a Florida Panther while hiking in Southwest Florida. The visitors couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the big cat.

We spoke to Irene Shetler about her and her son’s wild experience with a Florida Panther at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County recently.

Both of them hoped to see a panther on their first trip to the sanctuary Tuesday morning.

“The odds were that, well, you’ll never see one,” said Shetler, who asked the sanctuary how likely it would be to see these big cats.

Against the odds, Irene and her son, Chris, got what they hoped for. They heard thumping on the boardwalk, and they looked up to see a panther right in front of them.

“I just froze. I did not move at all,” Shetler said. “At one point there when I was looking at him, our eyes locked, and I thought, ‘I don’t know how is this going to go,’ but he seemed calm.”

Jeanne Swope was just feet away from the Shetlers. It was her first time at the sanctuary too. She says she and the panther also locked eyes.

“I just put my arms up in the air because that’s what I was remembering from people in the Rockies with cougar attacks,” Swope said. “I snapped some pictures as it was approaching me and then it decided to go over the rail and into the marsh and disappear.”

Sanctuary director Lisa Korte says the last time visitors saw a panther on the boardwalk was back in 2016.

“We see them on occasion,” Korte said. “But for a visitor to see one on the boardwalk is quite special.”

It’s a moment that Shetler and Swope feel lucky to have witnessed.

“I had never ever, ever expected to see an animal like that,” Shetler said. “He was beautiful.”

Korte says the two visitors did the right thing when they saw the panther. She said it is best to give the panther space and allow them to move away.

“It was amazing,” Swope said.