Florida Panther Conservation: Protecting the State Animal of Florida

Author: Paul Dolan Writer: Paul Dolan
Published: Updated:

Cimarron prowls the brush and hardwood of the Shy Wold Sanctuary with the swagger of a 150-pound predator in his natural habitat. Here, is Florida’s king of the beasts, but outside the sanctuary, the future of the Florida Panther…in fact its very survival, is in question. The majestic and powerful Florida Panther may well be inching toward extinction, but some in Florida are not giving up on this wild cat that makes its home only here.

The Florida Panther officially became a federally endangered species in 1967. 

But, in 1982, compelled by the dire circumstances, students sent a message by voting the Florida Panther as the state animal of Florida.

Cimarron looking into the camera. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

“When it comes to protecting the panther and the reasons why there are a couple of different perspectives, one comes down to the morality of it,” Tim Tetzlaff said.

Tetzlaff is the director of conservation at the Naples Zoo. Tetzlaff has been around the world helping wildlife conservation efforts. Tetzlaff’s knowledge, leadership, and effort have been instrumental in Florida Panther conservation efforts.

Cimarron, the Florida Panther at the Shy Wolf Sanctuary. CREDIT: Paul Dolan


According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, driving collisions are a “leading cause of death” for Florida Panthers. WINK News spoke with Carol Rizkalla, the Florida Panther management program coordinator for FWC.

The Naples Zoo. (Credit: WINK News)

“If you live in panther territory the first thing is to drive slowly, road kills are still a leading cause of death,” Rizkalla said.

According to FWC, three Florida Panthers have died from collisions as of March 28, 2023. But, that’s down from nine at this time last year.

Athena, from the Naples Zoo, climbing the enclosure for a snack. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

Of the 27 panthers that reportedly died in 2022 25 were from vehicle collisions. FWC’s Panther Pulse has reports dating back to 2014.

Roads could become increasingly problematic as the human population in Southwest Florida grows. As the human population becomes denser, the Florida Panther gets pushed deeper into a corner.

But humans aren’t the only threat. Tetzlaff said that invasive pythons add a previously unexpected issue to the survival of the endangered species.

“The invasion of pythons throughout south Florida has devastated small mammal populations,” Tetlaff said.

Cimarron showing his impressive teeth. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

Solutions & Improvements

So what’s being done to improve the conditions facing the state animal of Florida?

“Outside of the zoo, we support FWC and the United States Fish and Wildlife Services with their efforts. Which involves helping them purchase equipment, we do graphics for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge,” Tetzlaff said. “And then our big program is PantherCrossing.org which encourages people to drive the posted speeds in those wildlife crossings.”

“When you slow down from 60 (mph) to 45 (mph) it feels like you’re driving with molasses,” Tetzlaff said. “But even in a three-mile crossing zone that only adds 60 seconds to your drive. And that one minute for you could mean the lifetime for a panther.”

Credit: WINK News.

“Drive slowly, at least follow the speed limit. And in some areas, there are speed zones so that the speed limit drops at night when panthers are more active,” Rizkalla said.

According to Panther Crossing, an organization focused on protecting Florida Panthers on the road, over 240 panthers were killed on Florida roads in the last 10 years. Panthers tend to be more active during dawn and dusk when visibility is at its lowest. 

Athena grabbing a treat. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

Simply driving 15 mph slower not only helps the species but can save you money. According to the Naples Zoo website, “speeding tickets in posted panther crossing zones typically exceed $200 and excessive speeds require mandatory court appearances.”

Also, Naples Zoo’s “Brew at the Zoo” event spreads Florida Panther conservation.

“Having a beer for conservation is a pretty fun thing to do,” Tetzlaff said. The next event is on May 13.

“No tickets, you just show up,” Tetzlaff said. “May 13, Brew at the Zoo, you just show up at Riptide and a dollar from every beer goes to conservation.”

Athena on the prowl in her enclosure. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

And buying Uno Ale, named after Naples Zoo’s previous Florida Panther, directly funds Florida Panther conservation. That’s because $2 of every Uno Ale pint sold goes to the Naples Zoo Conservation Fund’s efforts for saving panthers in the wild, according to the Naples Zoo website.

Dealing with population density properly is vital Tetzlaff explains.”That’s the importance of identifying things like the Florida Wildlife Corridor, to see… the spots we really can’t lose.”

Navigating Florida Panther conservation with this in mind will help Floridians and our state animal.

“Density and how that growth happens is critical. Done the right way, we’ve got a future for panthers and the other wildlife,” Tetzlaff said.

Cimarron laying in the shade. CREDIT: WINK News

“We need him (Florida Panthers/Cimarron) here,” Deanna Deppen, the executive director of the Shy Wolf Sanctuary in Naples said. “We have all these invasive species,” Deppen said. “It’s just critical to the balance of the environment.”

Deppen explained how Shy Wolf helped Cimarron, the Florida Panther at the sanctuary.

“We acquired him (Cimarron) through a rescue,” Deppen explained.

Deppen spoke about organizations Shy Wolf works with aiding Florida Panther conservation efforts.

“We work with the Florida Wildlife Federation. And that was part of the partnership that came up with the idea for the new exhibit at our facility. We are planning to add more educational programs that are experiential for people so they can really learn about these animals,” Deppen said.

Athena stretching on the fence of her enclosure. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

Deppen brought up how underpasses would benefit Florida Panther conservation too.

“Underpasses connect sections of land that are safe for them (Florida Panthers) to travel in,” Deepen said. “They allow animals to avoid the roads and the vehicles.”

Deppen believes the best way for Floridians to build a panther-friendly future requires a focused effort and voting.

Cimarron stares into the camera. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

“The only way politicians will listen to us is if we speak to them and go to meetings in open forums and speak out and say we want to protect them,” Deppen said. “Working with Florida Wildlife Federation, they’re one of the key organizations that are at the forefront of this. And get involved and get their newsletter. And respond to their requests for assistance.”

Future Outlook

I asked Deppen what message it would send if the state animal of Florida were to go extinct.

“If the Florida Panther were to go extinct as our state animal that would be… sad beyond words. It would be heartbreaking. And the fact that we allowed it to happen would be unforgivable,” Deppen said.

But Rizkalla maintains unwavering confidence in the conservation efforts made by Floridians.

“We run population models and there is a very low probability of extinction within the next 100 years,” Rizkalla said. “And I don’t think that Floridians would really allow it to happen.”

Cimarron looking around the enclosure. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

Tetzlaff explained the opportunity that Florida Panther conservation presents for Floridians.

“Floridians have a wonderful chance to show the rest of the country and the rest of the world that conservation is possible,” Tetzlaff said. “Something that is identified as our state animal, that’s such an icon of our state, it’s not something you want to lose.”

41 years ago, Floridians proudly proclaimed we care about the Florida Panther by voting for it to be our state animal. It’s an eloquent example of Floridians working together towards a common goal.

Similarly, Tetzlaff thinks by working on Florida Panther conservation together, we can protect our state animal.

Cimarron while eating. CREDIT: Paul Dolan

“By acting together, being smart about it, we can show the rest of the world, Floridians appreciate what they have and can make sure it stays around for a long time,” Tetzlaff said.

While Floridians should be proud of the progress made in the last 41 years, we aren’t done yet.

Steadfastly choosing to conserve the Florida Panther, as we did 41 years ago, exemplifying that Floridians are united in protecting the Florida Panther.

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