YULEE, Fla. (AP) — A pair of endangered Florida panther kittens are thriving after being adopted by an internationally respected Nassau County wildlife refuge when a mysterious neurological disorder left their mother unable to care for them in the wild.
Cypress and Pepper had a rough start in life, but are coming into their own at White Oak Conservation — a 17,000-acre nonprofit preserve on the banks of the St. Marys River in Yulee, roughly 30 miles north of Jacksonville.
The brothers were scrawny and scared but feisty 2-week-old kittens when rescued by wildlife biologists and veterinarians last July.
State wildlife biologists stepped in to save the sibling pair because their 2-year-old mother had fallen prey to a debilitating disorder that researchers recently identified as feline leukomyelopath, which has stricken at least a half-dozen panthers and bobcats statewide.
The cause of the neurological disorder remains unknown despite ongoing investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Symptoms of the disorder include progressively worsening weakness in the in wild cats’ rear legs, which makes it difficult to walk, hunt, raise their young or escape danger, according to biologists.
Too young to survive on their own, Cypress and Pepper were taken to BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Animal Specialty Hospital of Florida in Naples. Both were quarantined as veterinarians examined them for disease, then underwent about two months of nursing care.
The kittens then were transferred to ZooTampa at Lowry Park, where panther experts hand-raised them as they received additional care and rehabilitation.
On Jan. 22, the brothers arrived at nonprofit White Oak Conservation — owned by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter. The wildlife refuge is part of Walter Conservation, which works to save endangered species and preserve wild places around the globe.
After undergoing multiple health screenings, Cypress and Pepper have been given the “all-clear” and show no signs of the crippling disorder. However, both will continue to be monitored by White Oak’s veterinarians to ensure they remain healthy.
Now 7 months old, the kittens remain rambunctious and playful. But their once-camouflage-like black streaks and spots have been replaced by the tawny-beige fur of coming adulthood.
“These young kittens will live out their lives at White Oak in peace and safety,” Walter said. “These recent health challenges with the panthers in South Florida are poignant reminders that White Oak and our partners must be vigilant and quick to respond if we are to save animals from emerging threats.”
Florida panthers typically are shy, elusive and solitary animals. In the wild, an adult male’s home range averages 275 square miles, according to wildlife biologists.
Brandon Speeg, director of conservation at White Oak, said Cypress and Pepper will stay together at the refuge. Because they were hand-raised, they cannot be returned to the wild, he said.
In the wild, Florida panther kittens generally stay with their mother for about 1 1/2-years before striking out to establish their own territories, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
The Florida panther is considered the most endangered big cat in North America. State panther experts estimate there are only about 120 to 230 adult panthers left in the wild. Most are in isolated pockets in South and Central Florida, researchers say.
The big cats once were hunted nearly to extinction. Florida panthers became the first species to gain protection under the landmark 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act.
Currently, the panthers are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation due to development and collisions with motor vehicles — which is the leading cause of mortality, state data shows.
Now, feline leukomyelopath poses a potential new threat.
So far, it appears Florida panthers and bobcats have been the only species afflicted by the disorder, according to the FWC.
The disorder was first detected in 2018 when remote trail cameras recorded some panthers and bobcats stumbling, hobbling or having their rear legs go out from under them as they walked.
Since then, state panther experts and veterinarians with assistance from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine have been working to pinpoint the cause of the disorder, which is more widespread than initially believed to be. It has been confirmed in panthers or bobcats in Collier, Alachua, Hillsborough, Lee and Sarasota counties, the FWC said.
So far, the total number of confirmed cases is at least six — two panthers and four bobcats, according to state data.
Cypress and Pepper’s mother was the second confirmed panther case in the state.
Designated as FP 256 and wearing a state tracking collar, the female panther was seen on remote trail camera footage stumbling, falling and struggling to walk in Collier County last July. The footage also showed two small kittens — designated K498 and K499 — following her, according to an FWC report.
Concerned the kittens — subsequently named Cypress and Pepper — wouldn’t survive, wildlife biologists captured them, starting the journey that led to their new home at White Oak.
The biologists continued keeping tabs on FP256. Her health continued to deteriorate, and by last October, it had worsened to the point where it was unlikely she would recover and she was humanely euthanized, the FWC said.
ORPHANS’ NEW HOME
White Oak Conservation, in longtime partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, works to rehabilitate injured, ill or orphaned Florida panthers and, if possible, return them to their home territory.
Since 1986, White Oak has rehabilitated and released 19 sick or injured Florida panthers. Many of the big cats had been struck by motor vehicles.
Among its successes was the rehabilitation of an injured female panther, who was reunited with her two kittens at White Oak and then the whole panther family was released together back into the wild.
Cypress and Pepper, though, are settling into their new permanent home at the refuge. Trail camera video footage shows them playing, chasing each other, climbing rocky outcroppings to survey their domain — and resting.
The kittens appear to be carefree.
However, their cousins in the wild face an uncertain future.
Walter said more needs to be done to protect the panther habitat. Florida continues to lose hundreds of thousands of acres of rural land to provide for new homes and new residents. More concerning, he said, are the new roads being built across panther home ranges, often after the areas are sold to housing developers.
“We need more private and public lands preserved, and we need dedicated wildlife crossings that enable the panther population to move, expand and thrive,” Walter said. “Otherwise, our generation will be responsible for the extinction of the Florida panther.”
Meanwhile, the FWC continues to investigate the cause of feline leukomyelopath, and they’re asking for the public’s help to submit trail camera footage and pictures of wildlife that appear to have problems with their rear legs at MyFWC.com/PantherSightings.
Dead or injured panthers can also be reported to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at (888) 404-FWCC (3922).