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What Happens to Orphaned Florida Panther Cubs?

Sassy at home at the Palm Beach Zoo
Sassy (image copyright: Janet Molchan)

Sassy’s Story

A young female Florida panther (puma concolor coryi) was rescued from an eastern Collier county, Florida park in mid-December 2015. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) panther biologists think her mother, who was given the official name UCFP251 after she was found dead, was approximately three years old. She was killed by a vehicle near the park.

FWC biologists think she had three cubs, two of which did not survive. One was never found; the other, found near a canoe launch in the same park three weeks after her mother was killed, died from starvation. The third was captured and taken to Naples Zoo in Florida where a brand new panther rehabilitation facility had just opened.

An endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. Click on the image for more details.
An endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. Click on the image for more details.

Named “Sassafras” and appropriately nicknamed Sassy, she earned the distinction of being the first panther cub to receive care there. She was only four months old. After battling pinworm and hookworm and given a given a clean bill of health, she was re-homed to the Palm Beach Zoo. “Sassy was at such a young age when she was left to fend for herself, she will never be able to return to the wild,” explained Nancy Nill, Associate Curator for the Zoo.

Flash forward to January 2016. Sassy now “owns” every inch of her new habitat. More gray in color than other panthers, she is still full of sass, confidence and feminine charm. She possesses the wild traits of a free-living panther. She stalks, pounces, hides behind trees, and reigns high from a special cat walk. She hisses, swats, and like most felines, ignores people when they call her name.

A visit to Palm Beach Zoo to see and observe Sassy and how she relates to her caretakers, and zoo guests, is an excellent learning opportunity. Zoo staff are on hand to give an educational and informative presentation about Sassy and another cougar in residence, answering any questions guests may have.  Both panthers didn’t seem bothered by the number of guests at their exhibit. No stress-related behaviors were observed when I was there.

(image copyright: Janet Molchan)
Sassy yawning (image copyright: Janet Molchan)

Rescue, Rehab and Reintroduction to the Wild

What about reintroducing rescued Florida panthers back in the wild? Not every rescued wildlife orphan is a good candidate for reintroduction. There are many contributing factors which determine re-release.

  • Age
  • Health
  • Proximity to reintegration facilities
  • Sufficient funds to cover the cost of food, medicine and medical care
  • Available around the clock staff to provide care
  • Ample space in which the cat can roam

What Happens to Orphaned Florida Panther Kittens?

Florida panther kittens that have been rescued and rehabbed are usually re-homed to nearby zoos or wildlife conservation centers, which adhere to strict guidelines from state and federal agencies, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  Felines under six months of age do not make good reintroduction candidates. They are too young to have learned from their mothers how to survive in the wild.  Older panthers or adult panthers that become injured may be candidates for release. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the wild population count for the Florida panther is between 120 and 180.

How Zoo Wildlife Conservation Helps Florida Panthers

South Florida zoos contribute to Florida panther conservation by providing rehabilitative services, funding habitat restoration initiatives, providing homes for the young panther cubs, educating guests about the panther, and raising awareness about panther habitat and the threats to it. They also participate in panther recovery programs to aid in the conservation of the Florida state cat.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association reports that Florida panthers may live to 12 years of age in the wild and 16 years in captivity. Captive panthers benefit from excellent veterinary care, advanced nutritional standards, engaging enrichment activities, and have a dedicated, committed team of caregivers.

Florida Panther 2016 Statistics

  • 43 Florida panthers were killed in the state in 2016.
  • 34 were killed by vehicle or vehicle collision.
  • 13 of those killed by vehicle or collision were female.
  • Six of the 13 were old enough to have kittens.

More Florida Panther Information

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Panther Statistics
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Florida Panther Information

More on South Florida Zoo Conservation

Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society
Palm Beach Zoo Conservation
Naples Zoo and Caribbean Gardens
Conservation Programs

I am published writer who lives in south Florida. After writing several articles about the plight of African wildlife, I was encouraged to learn and write about the wildlife in my own back yard by my father. This has led into a journey of exploration into Florida’s wildlife and the threats to them.  Follow me on Facebook and Twitter

The National Geographic Photo Ark isa multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The Florida panther is one of them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.