Do Florida panthers really exist? In my 10 years in this state I've seen many "panther crossing" signs but nary a panther. My suspicious mind wonders if the state of Florida is pretending it has members of the cougar family because it looks at states like Colorado and has "big cat envy."
After all, in other states we see deer crossing and moose crossing signs and, guess what, we also see deer and moose. In Maine not seeing moose can be hazardous to your health. If you don't believe me, drive to Maine sometime and stop at the welcome center on I-95. It has a huge map of all the moose-auto collisions that have occurred--at a rate of 700 per year.
By contrast, the state of Florida has a map of panther-auto collisions and its numbers are relatively few and that's a good thing. It's because there aren't that many panthers. Wildlife specialists tell us there are 80 to 100 left. In the face of their data, I'm reconsidering my disbelief in Florida panthers, but without an actual sighting, I remain skeptical.
For one thing, when I see a panther crossing sign, it reminds me of the kind of hysteria they have in Scotland over the Loch Ness monster or in the Pacific Northwest over Bigfoot. These two characters are famous examples of cryptozoology. That is, creatures the scientific community considers to be a combination of folklore, hoaxes and some pretty strong alcoholic beverages.
I was just about ready to chalk up the Florida panther to cryptozoology when I found that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Commission recognizes their existence. Still, I am not quite ready to accept the government's word; particularly since a government official once told me that a certain tax was temporary. That was a total myth. There is no such thing as a temporary tax.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let's say that Florida panthers do exist. Maybe we never see them because they are scared off by those bright yellow panther crossing signs. I can just imagine two panthers contemplating one:
"I say, Chauncey, do you think that picture looks like me?"
"Not really, Bertram. You're getting a bit too hefty in the hindquarters."
"What do you think it's for?" (I'm assuming that panthers can't read English.)
"Maybe it's a panther bus stop. What say we motor off to Orlando?"
"Not me. That whole region is ruled by some rodent named Mickey."
"Maybe it indicates a restroom for us."
"I seriously doubt that they want us relieving ourselves on the side of the road. I deduce that it is some sort of wanted poster."
"By George, Bertram, I think you've got it. This is no place for us. Let's disappear into the wilderness."
And we never see them. Another explanation for non-sightings may lie in a recent report from the state highway people. This summer they removed panther crossing signs from Treeline Avenue, which runs by the airport.
"Panther habitat was not there," they explained, making good sense.
So that's why we never see panthers flying in and out of Regional Southwest Airport, cheering for the Everblades at Germain Arena, or shopping at Gulf Coast Town Center. It also explains why FGCU students have never mentioned panthers showing up for class or poring over textbooks in the library. Apparently the panthers took umbrage at all that development, packed their belongings and left the neighborhood.
But there are still panther crossing signs in southwest Florida and for good reason. In the first half of this year, the state reported 14 panthers killed by motor vehicles. That included two on Corkscrew Rd. and one on Route 82. While I have yet to see up close and personal evidence that the cats exist, I prefer to err on the side of caution when I see a panther crossing sign. After all, the life I save may be Chauncey's or Bertram's.
— Rett Murch is a resident of Olde Hickory in South Fort Myers. Contact him at email@example.com.
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