Rescued Florida panther recovers, enters new home

A Florida panther kitten discovered near death in the Everglades seven months ago has recovered, gained weight and entered his new home at a wildlife park near Tampa.

His specially built enclosure stands at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Given the name Yuma, an Indian word for "son of the chief," he was placed in an 80 by 120-foot enclosure full of live oaks and other native trees.

"It's an incredible honor to have Yuma at the wildlife park," said Clif Maxwell, district chief for the Florida Park Service. "While we are saddened he cannot be returned to his natural habitat, this will provide visitors to Homosassa Springs the opportunity to view one of Florida's rarest and most iconic endangered species.''

The panther was found by biologists at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Collier County during an unusually cold period in January, apparently suffering from neglect. At the time, he was just a week old, weighed one pound and suffered from dehydration and a low body temperature.

Taken to a local veterinarian for emergency care, he ended up at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, where he was bottle fed with a powdered milk replacement and eventually moved up to a meat diet.

Now the emaciated kitten of seven months ago has become a formidable cat of nearly 50 pounds. But because he never learned to hunt from his mother, he could not be returned to the wild. Rather than killing deer, rabbits and hogs, he will eat Nebraska Premium Feline Diet, supplemented by big bones on which to gnaw.

"We got him when he was 10 pounds, now he's close to 50," said Sue Lowe, supervisor at the park, which is also home to a range of animals from bobcats to a hippo. "He is so well-adjusted. Since we've had him, he's adjusted just beautifully."

Yuma's wild South Florida cousins continue to struggle to survive, getting run over by cars and fighting each other over a shrinking habitat.

Yet Florida panther numbers have risen in the past decades, from a low of as few as 30 in the 1970s to 100 to 180 today, and wildlife officials are discussing ways to expand their habitat to land north of Lake Okeechobee..

So far, park officials said, Yuma appears content in his new home, with its shallow pool, logs for scratching and shade trees.

"He was running around after he was introduced to his habitat," said Susan Strawbridge, park services specialist. "He's very playful and observant of the bobcats next door."

dfleshler@tribune.com, 954-356-4535