Walking home alone in the early evening just as dusk settles in on a lonely old dirt road surrounded by dense woods and orange groves can be a pretty spooky experience for just about anyone. But it can be absolutely frightening to a thirteen or fourteen year old boy when he hears a woman screaming in the orange grove just a few yards from the road!
When this happened to me, I was just walking along toward my home about half a mile away when I heard what sounded like a woman screaming as if she were being attacked or had gotten seriously injured. At first I was just startled, for many times I had traveled this road alone at night and had never before encountered another human except for those in an occasional passing car or truck.
I just stopped and stared in the direction from which the sound had come. Then there was another scream! No other sound, no lights, nothing but that woman’s scream and one little kid who couldn’t even run!
I yelled “Hello, who’s there?” but received no answer. All was silent for a moment and I yelled again, “Hello.” Then I heard and saw what looked like a big cat running through the underbrush that always grows around the base of an orange tree. I waited a little, but that’s the last I saw or heard from the grove, so I went on home.
When I told my folks what I’d seen, my dad said it was just a panther and I should just leave ‘em alone if I ever saw one again. He told me that they run away from people and usually won’t hurt anybody.
Well, Dad was right. What I had seen was evidently none other than a Florida Panther, otherwise known as cougar, mountain lion, puma or catamount, and in my own words,
Panthers are usually quiet, but under some circumstances they do communicate through what are called vocalizations. These sounds are varied and plentiful. They have been described as chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls, and even hisses.
Kittens and mothers keep track of each other with whistles. Females signal their readiness to mate by yowling or caterwauling. White-tailed deer, wild hog, rabbit, raccoon, armadillo and birds provide their food source.
Originally found from western Texas throughout the southeastern states, and South America these big cats once were the most common mammal in North and South America except humans, but now they can be found only in Florida. I found one estimate that says there may be as few as fifty of these animals left. Solitary, territorial, often traveling at night, males have a home range of up to 400 square miles and females about 50-100 square miles.They need lots of room for roaming and hunting, but they are being crowded out by us humans. Habitat loss has driven the panthers into a small area in southern Florida, where the few remaining animals are highly inbred. This causes genetic flaws such as heart defects and sterility, reducing their numbers even further.
There has never been a case recorded of a Florida Panther attacking a human. They usually are very quiet and will shy away from a human if given the chance, but the likelihood of encountering one is getting less with each passing year, for their numbers are shrinking despite huge efforts and great monetary expense to try and protect them. Recently, closely related panthers from Texas have been released in Florida and are successfully breeding with the Florida panthers. Increased genetic variation and protection of habitat may yet save the subspecies. These big, beautiful felines have been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list since 1967.