How America’s most endangered cat could help save Florida

Once nearly extinct, the Florida panther is expanding its range. Protecting wildlife corridors could save the cat—and humans—from sprawl.

A female panther and three kittens explore Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a reserve of old-growth cypress forest surrounded by encroaching suburbs on three sides. Many of these camera trap images took years to capture because of the cats’ rarity, their unpredictable movements, and the difficulty involved in getting the right lighting. Florida’s weather can be a challenge too: One camera was lost during a hurricane but was later recovered.

“Welcome to panther country,” Brian Kelly says when I meet him at a busy intersection in East Naples, Florida, a stone’s throw from a gas station and an urgent care center.  

Kelly, a state panther biologist, points east into the sprawling subdivision where he lives. A panther was caught on camera just a quarter mile away, he says, and another one made it across the six-lane road we’re standing beside. 

Yet another panther, an eight-year-old female named FP224, lives nearby. She’s been hit by a car twice, breaking a leg each time. She was treated by veterinarians and released after both accidents. To look for signs of her, we drive to Kelly’s house, next to a patch of forest where she recently denned and birthed at least three kittens. It’s the wet season, when panther tracks typically are wiped out by rain, but we get lucky. 

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