Ledger Inquirer: Could that have been a panther on the RiverWalk?

May 25, 2014 

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerA reader says she and friends spotted a large cat that looked like this Florida panther recently on the Chatthoochee RiverWalk.

Considering all the Fort Benning soldiers who exercise on the Chattahoochee RiverWalk, it wouldn't be surprising to see some cougars on the prowl there. But panthers? Specifically, Florida panthers?

I got an email from Concerned Reader Lisa, who said she and some friends were on the RiverWalk recently and came across some kind of large tan cat. Really large.

"There were eight of us bike riding on the Riverwalk today," Lisa wrote. "We saw a really strange looking animal, like a big cat. We all live in the country, and have never seen anything like this before. After researching on the internet, this Florida panther (she included a picture) looks a lot like what we saw. Have there been any other sightings in this area?"

Panthers used to be common all over this part of the country but not in a long, long time. The Florida panther, which has been listed as an endangered species since 1967, has only one known habitat where the last breeding colony of them live. That, not surprisingly, is in Florida. (Where else would Florida panthers go?)

Not only is the only known colony in Florida, but it's in extreme south Florida, around the Everglades.

But panther experts say the males have been known to roam, some as far north as the panhandle and in rare cases across the line into extreme south Georgia. But it's highly unlikely that one would get this far north, they say.

That said, back in 2008, a hunter shot and killed a Florida panther while hunting in Troup County. He was later prosecuted and got a $2,000 fine and two years probation, dur

ing which he was banned from hunting anything anywhere.

I called Jim Ozier, a senior wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and asked if it could have been a Florida panther Lisa and her friends saw.

"I never say never. It's not impossible," Ozier said. "You know, we did have a confirmed Florida panther that was killed a little north of there a few years ago. There's some question as to how it got there, whether it wandered up there on its own from south Florida or it might have been a captive animal that escaped.

"So it's not impossible that one could come up there."

Ozier said if it is a wild panther rather than an escaped one, it's obviously one that likes to travel.

"Who knows how long it would stay there?" Ozier said. "If it is a wild panther, it traveled a long way to get there, so it might still be traveling. It might have only been there one day. If it's an escaped one, it might not be that much of a traveler."

Adult female Florida panthers can weigh from 65 pounds to 100 pounds, while adult males weigh from 100 pounds to 160 pounds. (Maybe they drink more beer.) Their total body length, including tail, is six feet or seven feet and they stand 24 inches to 28 inches high.

They eat small animals like rabbit and mice, but they've been known to take down whitetail deer, wild boar and, on occasion, even an alligator.

Anything that can kill an alligator could probably do a number on a person. So if, in fact, there is a Florida panther around here and one of my Concerned Readers should come across it, what should they do -- or not do?

"It's certainly best not to approach it but also not to run from it," Ozier said. "It's probably best not to look it directly in the eyes either. Just slowly back off and give it some room, and hope that it's not going to be too interested in a person.

"Try to get away quickly, but not in a panic."

Good advice.

-- Seen something that needs attention? Don't panic. Back away slowly and contact me at 706-571-8570 or mowen@ledger-enquirer.com.

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