A Florida panther was recently given a new lease on life, released back into the wild following an unexpected encounter with a vehicle. But the animal’s recovery brings to light an ongoing threat for these big cats living in the Sunshine State — and it’s none other than the cars we drive every day.
Hit by a car in early December, the panther was rescued by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and given the nickname of Logan. Hoping to help the animal recover, FWC brought Logan to the Naples Zoo, where he was kept in Glass Animal Hospital as he recuperated. Ultimately, Logan was given a clean bill of health and fitted with a radio tracking collar. He was then was released in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, located roughly 20 miles east of Naples.
The Glass Animal Hospital is a recent addition to the Naples Zoo and Logan was the first panther treated there. However, he may not be the last due to the frequency with which cars collide with panthers.In fact, car accidents are the leading cause of panther deaths in Florida. For context, there are significantly fewer Florida panthers in the United States compared to human beings. But though 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year on a global scale, 20 Florida panthers die due to car collisions every year. The unfortunate reality is that Florida panthers, despite being the most endangered cats in North America, are at high risk of being seriously injured or killed due to collisions with vehicles. And while panthers were once common across the southeast, their habitat is now largely limited to a small territory in Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 230 panthers still exist in the wild, but two were killed by cars in the first week of 2021 alone.
Drivers do encounter animals on the road somewhat regularly. Although the advice to drivers on this subject can vary, motorists are generally advised to slow down but not to swerve to avoid hitting the animals. This is because animals on the road present a hazard not only for the animals but for drivers, as well. When drivers swerve to avoid striking animals, they risk getting into serious and even life-threatening accidents. Additionally, striking animals head-on can harm not only the vehicles involved but the drivers.
The issue for Florida panthers is that they are being struck at such high rates in comparison to their overall population. Most of the Florida panthers found dead in 2020 had been killed by cars. Part of the reason why panthers are struck by vehicles could be linked to the fact that drivers simply don’t expect them to appear. Panthers are much lower to the ground than wild deer, so they can be more difficult to see when traveling at high speeds.
Additionally, panthers are being forced to travel across busy roads more frequently. Their habitats are being encroached upon by human development projects, which means that panthers are also more likely to encounter human beings. Most often, these encounters come in the form of collisions. These collisions can happen at any time, though they are perhaps more likely to happen when there are more drivers on the roads. But although the Fourth of July is the worst day of the year for fatal car crashes in the U.S., panthers can be hit by cars at any time.
The question for many Florida drivers is what they can do to reduce the risk of striking panthers while at the same time ensuring their own safety. There remain many misconceptions surrounding panthers. Although these animals are undoubtedly predators, they remain much more skittish than they are aggressive. Their fearful natures could in fact be part of why they are so often struck by cars. Additionally, these panthers do not usually prey upon human beings. Even though 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, many people remain more afraid of panthers than our canine companions. However, it seems that we may be much more dangerous to panthers than they are to us.
There are strategies that people can utilize to preserve the Florida panther population. Some of them will also help people become safer drivers, in general. Firstly, it’s important for people to be alert, especially when driving in areas known for large panther populations (like the Gulf of Mexico). If an area in which a driver is traveling is known to be populated with a deer, a common prey of the panther, then the driver should be looking out for both deer and panthers. Thick forest areas could also indicate the potential for a panther’s presence. Drivers should also proceed with caution during nighttime hours, as this is the time of day when panthers are most likely to be active — and the time when they are the hardest to spot. It’s also a good idea to watch for a panther’s “eyeshine” at night and to keep an eye on reflective signs. If you see a bright glint or a shadow across a sign, you should slow down and assume there are wild animals around.
Another way that drivers can avoid hitting panthers is by eliminating reckless behavior. While it’s impossible to eliminate the possibility that a driver will strike a panther, if a driver is speeding or not driving in a straight line, they will be more likely to strike a panther. There are many reasons why all drivers should be careful when driving, but the possibility of hitting a panther may encourage some to be safer than they currently are.
Those that are concerned about panthers being struck by cars may also want to get involved in wildlife preservation activism. While the aforementioned panther Logan was easily able to be released back into the wild, it would be much more difficult for the Naples Zoo to release him if there wasn’t a nearby wildlife refuge. It is crucial for panthers to have space in which they can roam freely. The more uninterrupted space panthers have, the less likely they will be to be struck by vehicles.
People who wish to become more involved in terms of panther conservation may want to reach out to their local zoos or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Volunteering and donations can help these organizations save injured panthers and prevent further injuries and killings from occurring.