On March 3rd we celebrate the 117th anniversary of Florida’s statehood. The 27th state to join the Union, Florida in 1845 was largely unsettled by non-Native American groups. From its discovery by Europeans onward, settlers struggled to learn how to survive in a difficult climate filled with potentially troublesome plants and animals. While mentioning Florida wildlife may invoke a variety of images including the alligator and manatee, the state animal is officially the Florida Panther. To celebrate Florida’s birthday, we want to take the time to discuss this state symbol and just a few of its numerous appearances in our historic newspaper collection.
The Florida Panther (also known as the catamount or painter) was selected by school children in the state during the early 1980s to be the state animal. It faced stiff competition during this election, beating out the alligator, Key Deer, and manatee. By the late 20th century, the panther had secured a spot on the Federal endangered species list due to there being only about 20 left in existence. This Federal protection is a far cry from the cultural attitude of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when panthers were routinely sought out and killed by people all over Florida. For example, a 1916 advertisement for Ten Thousand Islands (now a part of the Everglades National Park) by West Coast Transportation Company promoted the region as “the best area for hunting, fishing, and boating” and includes “panther” on the list of animals that can be found (and presumably hunted) in the area.
The simplest explanation as to why they were the targets of human aggression is because humans feared them and the big cats caused property damage. These large carnivorous mammals routinely grow to be between 75 and 160 pounds and, in the past, had no scruples about entering towns in search of food. In March of 1901 the Ocala Evening Star included a front page story about a Panther who “invaded the streets” of Perry, Florida. The Panther was reported to have attacked two dogs belonging to Mr. W. E. Quarterman, “eating one and badly wounding the other.” This is a rare story because it does not end in the panther’s death, rather, it simply states that the animal “departed, leaving nothing but his tracks and a partly devoured dog.” A panther living in the Pensacola area was not as lucky. In January of 1907 the Pensacola Journal reported that “wild cats in that vicinity were working sad havoc” and had caused W.D. Henderson to lose “25-30” lambs during the present season. This lead the farmer to join forces with Country Treasurer Williams and “the famous colored catamount hunter,” Ransom Dean, to deal with the animals. The paper reports that they were able to successfully kill two and ends by stating that Mr. Henderson “thinks that either the county commissioners or the cattle growers of the county, or both, should provide a bounty for these destructive animals.”
Panthers in their natural habitat weren’t much safer than those that ventured into land settled by humans. In April 1908 both the Pensacola Journal and Ocala Evening Star reran a story originally from the Tampa Tribune reporting a panther incident near Punta Gorda. It seems that five young men decided to go camping on Captiva Island despite warnings that it was “infested with various wild animals.” While the trip went well at first, that Friday night P.Q.S. Hatch was attacked by a panther while hunting. Two of his companions arrived after Hatch fired a distress signal from his gun, and Gene Whidden, witnessing the confrontation, “killed the panther by shooting it in the head with a rifle.” Hatch emerged from the event “terribly clawed all over” but ultimately survived.
In addition to the fact that they were considered game animals until 1958, panthers are threatened by other aspects of human activity beyond hunting and poaching. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Service reports road kills are the most common human related cause of panther death in the wild. While this has certainly been exacerbated by the growth of Florida interstates, stories of panthers sightings near roads is not a new occurrence. In 1914 the Pensacola Journal re-ran a short story from the DeLand News about a panther who “was getting ready to spring upon” a hog near the road until “the headlight of an automobile” scared the cat into the brush “before they had the chance to shoot.” Interestingly, this article also notes that this particular panther was the first longtime resident Sheriff Smith had seen in many years and that “forty years ago there were many” in the Volusia county area.
Despite the well-chronicled negativity in instances of human-panther interaction in historical newspapers from Florida, some stories have a happier ending. In May of 1899, the Ocala Evening Star includes a quick blurb about Louis Volk, a local man who captured a catamount kitten. This man apparently displayed the living animal in the show window of A. E. Delouest, a local hardware store. While it may be a good idea to question the claim that it “is becoming somewhat domesticated,” this story nonetheless shows a different side to panther human-panther encounter. One thing becomes very clear while reading about panthers in historical Floridian newspapers: humans have a certain fascination with this particular animal. Perhaps that’s what led school children to choose it to represent Florida as the State Animal.
Works Cited and Additional Information
- Close-up view of a Florida panther in the natural habitat zoo at the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science. Not before 1996. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Website. Accessed February 26, 2016. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/258813.
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Florida Panther Net, Accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.floridapanthernet.org/.
- “State Animal.” Florida Department of State. Accessed February 26, 2016, http://dos.myflorida.com/florida-facts/florida-state-symbols/state-animal/.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Florida Panther: Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida.” Accessed February 26, 2016, https://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MSRPPDFs/FloridaPanther.pdf.