Panther attacks have become so commonplace in eastern Collier County that an environmental group is launching a campaign to provide homeowners with covered pens to protect their animals.
People living in and around Golden Gate Estates "need to get used to the idea" of taking precautions against attacks from panthers and other large predators, said Elizabeth Fleming, the St. Petersburg-based Florida representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
"Most people wouldnít wade into a pond full of alligators during mating season," Fleming said. "Itís going to take a little while for people to learn to live with panthers."
There are no reports of a Florida panther attacking a human going back for at least a century. But panther-on-livestock aggression is on the rise, leading a small but vocal group of residents to complain about the way wildlife officials are handling the species.
So far this year, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented five panther attacks, all of them in eastern Collier. There were seven attacks in 2006 and one in 2005, according to the state.
Not all panther encounters end up in violence. Dogs chased a male panther up a tree May 11 on Heritage Trail near the intersection of Davis Boulevard and County Bard Road, said Mark Lotz, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.
After a few hours, the panther climbed down and fled. Two days later, a woman doing gardening outside Unity Church on the south side of Davis spotted the cat on the edge of the woods, Lotz said.
Lotz and other panther experts attribute the increase in panther-human encounters to a dramatic upswing in the endangered animalís population at a time when sprawl is eating away its habitat.
Over the past decade, panther numbers have more than tripled, to as high as 100, thanks to a breeding program involving eight female Texas cougars. Meanwhile, the federal government has given the go-ahead for dozens of new subdivisions on the 1.7 million acres of panther territory in private holding.
Livestock pens have been successful at keeping predators at bay in western states, such as California, Oregon and Idaho, which are home to the pantherís genetic cousin, the mountain lion, Fleming said. This is the first time that Defenders of Wildlife has offered the pens in Florida.
Florida Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service are supporting the campaign, either financially or in their rhetoric.
At town hall meetings in Golden Gate Estates and Everglades City aimed at addressing residentsí panther concerns, wildlife officials promoted the construction of pens. The state is footing the bill for the first three pens, which cost between $500 and $550 each, Fleming said.
Defenders of Wildlife representatives and other volunteers will erect one pen each on two properties on Keri Island Road on June 2. The third will be built the following day at the Collier County Extension Office, 14700 Immokalee Road, where it will remain on display as an example for visiting homeowners and ranch owners.
The chain-link pens are 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 6 feet tall with a pitched canvas-covered roof. The roof is a must to guard against panthers, prolific jumpers that they are. The cats can leap at least 10-15 feet high, Lotz said.
One of the recipients is Rebecca Galligan. Last summer, a large animal crept from the woods and killed one of her dogs, a 65-pound dog of indiscernible breed named Riley. His throat was mauled and he had cat-like scratches along his ribs, Galligan said.
But Galligan, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, took the incident in stride.
"We do understand what the panther is going through now. Thereís nowhere else for them to go and look for food. Having the (construction) equipment destroy where they live and eat and have their babies, itís devastating for them," she said.
Rege Malone, a neighbor of Galliganís, was spared during the spate of attacks along the northern fringe of Golden Gate Estates, which claimed 20 goats, sheep and five dogs over two weeks. But he lost eight goats in one attack a few years ago, he said. He also will be receiving a pen for his yard.
"Weíre willing to give this a try," Malone said, adding that the structure would only house eight pregnant goats. "If it works, maybe we can do some additional ones."
Biologists never could conclude whether last summerís attacks were perpetrated by a panther or perhaps a pack of wild dogs. No one called state Fish and Wildlife until about a week after the last of the attacks, so most of the evidence was gone, Lotz said.