TAMPA, Fla. — In 2020, ABC Action News began an in-depth investigation on a mysterious neurological disease killing the already endangered Florida panther population. It’s estimated only 200 panthers still exist in the wild. Two of those are alive today thanks to the rehab team at ZooTampa.
“That's where we came in and we certainly wanted to make sure that one, make sure they were healthy and then give them the best possible chance that we could,” Director of Conservation at ZooTampa Tiffany Burns said.
Cypress and Pepper arrived at ZooTampa’s panther rehab when they were 14 days old. Their mother, like a dozen other animals in Florida’s wild was discovered with a mysterious wasting neurological disorder. Panthers in the wild were seen on trail cameras walking oddly with a hitch in their step. For researchers, it resembled symptoms found in mad cow disease. The pair's mother unfortunately had to be euthanized.
When Cypress and Pepper came to ZooTampa, they had to isolate and bottle feed.
“They're both males, they don't have that hunting instinct," Burns said. "So, many reasons why they couldn't be released that's when we really started working with them, teaching them, taking them for playtime. All the bonding which was really important for their continued success."
ZooTampa cared for Pepper and Cypress for six months behind the scenes. The zoo is making a difference with their rehab programs with panthers, bears, baboons and manatees, which in turn is saving the state's dwindling mammal population. Cypress and Pepper are now healthy, fully grown, and living at White Oak Conservation just outside Jacksonville.
“They came to us when they were 60 pounds and now, they're 120 pounds," White Oak Conservation's Sophia Tribuzio said. "So, they have doubled in size and they have the energy of a toddler."
Tribuzio said the panthers have healthy appetites, like to take naps and are playful like most cats. Thankfully, they're showing no hereditary signs of the wasting disease that took their mother from them.
“You always hear and see Cypress first, so, he's very vocal. Anytime you present food to him you hear him screaming about how excited he is that his food is there. So, he's very loud," she said. "Pepper is more shy and timid. So, it's funny behaviorally you can identify who is who very quickly."
Success stories of the Florida panther are celebrated by both organizations. The endangered species is battling habitat loss, urbanization, in-fighting over territory and a mysterious neurological disorder.
However, there are more causes for concern for the endangered species. Vehicle strikes are the number one killer for Florida panthers. In 2022, 10 have been killed due to car crashes. By some estimates, panthers are dying faster than they are reproducing. Their natural, safe habitats are shrinking. Development is cutting off their ability to roam and populate.
Southwest Florida tends to be their spot to congregate, but researchers said to ensure survival, the species need to roam freely. A recent summit in Orlando held between conservation experts and developers, tried to come up with solutions for smarter development of the Sunshine State.
“We all have to do it together," Burns said. "It's going to take all of us, so, really figuring what it's going to take to ensure we keep Florida the way that it needs to be. We need to have ranging areas for these animals so they can continue to populate to live these normal lives."
ZooTampa has three resident Florida panthers at their recently unveiled exhibit. The team hopes one day Florida panther's endangered label can be removed.