FWC each year needs to capture a representative sample of the panther population for research and monitoring purposes. Safely capturing a Florida panther requires a well-coordinated effort involving wildlife biologists and trained dogs led by a highly skilled houndsman. While biologists look for visual clues such as fresh panther tracks, the dogs are using their remarkable sense of smell to find where a panther walked. A dog’s sense of smell is at least 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s sense of smell. Dogs can even detect when crossing a panther’s trail whether the panther was walking to the right or left by the relative concentration of scent. The dogs follow the scent trail until they catch up to the panther. The panther typically is pursued for only a few minutes before it decides to retreat and climb up a tree to safety.
Once the panther is treed, biologists assess conditions to determine if the panther can be safely captured. If conditions are favorable, a portable air cushion and a net are put into place to protect the panther when it falls from the tree while under anesthesia. Biologists then use an air-powered gun to dart the panther with a sedative and wait for it to fall asleep. Often the panther falls from the tree, safely landing on the cushion below. If not, and the panther gets lodged in the tree, a biologist will climb the tree, tie a rope around the panther and lower it safely to the ground.
After the panther is stabilized, the team quickly goes to work collecting samples and data. Biological samples are collected, including blood for health screening, skin biopsies, plucked hair for genetic analysis and shaved hair for mercury monitoring. These samples help biologists and veterinarians assess the panther’s general health and monitor for potential disease threats. Captured panthers also are vaccinated against a host of diseases including feline leukemia virus, and given a deworming agent.
The panther’s identification number is tattooed in each ear and a passive integrated transponder (also known as PIT tag) is inserted under the skin for identification purposes. Finally, a radiocollar with a unique frequency is attached in order to track and monitor this individual panther’s movements. When the team is finished processing the panther, it is placed in a shaded area to recover while the team quietly leaves the area.
You can watch this short video to see how we capture Florida panthers: