The wildlife experts who monitor Florida Panthers try to keep a clinical tone in discussing them. They don’t name them, referring to them instead by number — K322, for example, was a kitten born this spring.
But their field notes can’t mask the deep feelings stirred by working with these endangered animals, and sometimes an individual animal is extraordinarily memorable.
And thus the story of a female panther kitten K322 is both poignant and informative. It is told in a recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report.
The story of K322 begins in February, 2008. Her mom, FP162, was 3 years old when biologists chanced upon her while trailing a male.
Over the next three years, FP162 created dens four time and had 10 kittens. None surive. Some were killed by males; the most recent litter was lost to fire.
“The loss of so many kittens may seem unusual but a recent analysis of panther kitten survival …found that overall only one in three panthers kittens survive to a year of age,” the wildlife service writes.
A panther mother does not have an easy time. She raises her young alone and must protect her kittens at the den for six to eight weeks.
Still, she has to eat in order to produce milk, so she must leave the den to stalk and and kill an animal, usually a deer, equal to her size. Then, she must spend 12 to 18 months teaching her young how to survive in the wild alone.”
In late spring this year, FP162 had more four kittens: One of those was K322, and wildlife workers would get to know K322 personally before her death.
On April 15, when the kittens were two or three weeks old, biologists weighed kittens K322 to K325. Surprisingly, the female, K322, outweighed her three brothers.
Mom returned the next day and carefully moved each male kitten in her mouth across the prairie to a new dense palmetto thicket.
But, inexplicably, she left K322, the healthy female, behind.
Little K322 waited day after day. After five days, biologists came back for their cameras and heard her cry. K322 had lost 23 percent of her body weight.
Wildlife workers immediately fed her kitten-milk replacement and flew her by helicopter to the Oasis Visitor Center.
And this is where the scientists can’t help but bond with K322:
“Word of her arrival spread and many staff members at Big Cypress National Preserve enjoyed their first glimpse of a Florida panther kitten, excitedly forwarding photos via cell phones to their friends,” writes Deborah Jansen of Big Cypress National Preserve.
People who work everyday protecting Florida panther habitat for once got to see and perhaps save a panther kitten.
Even so, K322 belonged with her brothers and mom, so, the next day, in a stealth operation rivaling Navy Seals, biologists flew K322 by helicopter back to the den. They made sure mom was away, rubbed K322 in leaves and soil to mask the human smell, and placed K322, now 6 ounces heavier, back among her siblings.
Biologists waited and watched.
Mom FP162 came home. The kittens were not moved. And over time, K322 gained weight. Success!
That was April 22. Eleven days later, a thunderstorm crossed the preserve and sparked a fire.
Despite efforts to protect the den, fire killed the four kittens on May 2.
“The den recorder indicated that FP162 remained with her kittens until [the fire] engulfed the area. Five-week-old kittens are not able to flee a fire,” Jansen wrote.
The mother survived, uninjured. Biologists removed the kitten remains, and FP162 returned to the den almost every day for the next 23 days searching for them.
Still, the grief of the biologists and others who worked to save K322 and the other kittens is understated:
“Although seeing live wild panther kittens is always an extraordinary experience, sometimes events make certain individuals unique and remembered,” Jansen wrote. “K322 touched many people in her short life.”
Florida Rambler resources for planning a visit to the Everglades: