When Saskia Fischer let her dog out to do his business on an early January morning near Naples, Fla., both human and pet were in for a shock. A panther jumped out from behind the bushes, ready to take the 3-year-old Eskimo Pomeranian mix in his sight.
"The dog did his business," Fischer told the Tampa Bay Times, "and then all of a sudden I have this panther jumping out of the bushes at us. I screamed, and the panther started making like a hissing noise." Fischer grabbed her pup by the tail and pulled him indoors. “It was a very intense morning."
Fischer is among hundreds of Florida residents who have reported panther sightings within the past year. The data, taken from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which launched a website last summer asking the public to report any panther sightings or their tracks.
As of August 2013, the public had submitted 790 sightings within the past 12 months. But not all of those are panthers, Darrell Land, who heads the wildlife commission's panther team said. Of the 12 percent that had a photo and could be reviewed, the majority were panthers. The Tampa Bay Times reports an even smaller number -- five percent or 40 sightings – were verified.
Despite being Florida state’s animal, the panther was placed on the endangered list in 1967 where there were as few as 20 living in the wild. Recovery efforts have saved the species which population has grown to 100 to 160 adults and yearlings in the wild, according to the FWC. Florida panthers are known to breed on the southern tip of the state, but in recent years young males have traveled as far as northeast Florida.
According to the FWC website, most reports were confined to southwest Florida and some in south central Florida.
The FWC sees this as a sign that the species is growing. “As the population of this endangered species grows, the FWC expects more Florida panthers to be seen in areas of the state where they have not lived for decades,” Land said, adding that the agency’s website will help them track the panthers’ population expansion.
Still, the public sometimes has trouble distinguishing a panther from the pack of wildlife found across the state. Bobcats, foxes, coyotes, dogs, house cats and even a monkey were among the species mistakenly reported.
"I had a biology professor from a community college who said he saw one at Sebastian Inlet," Land told the Tampa Bay Times. After state biologists studied his photo, Land told him, "Dude, that is a black house cat."