Hailed as an iconic conservation success story, the Florida panther has a complex, little-known history.
National Geographic – 25 April – DOUGLAS MAIN & PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARLTON WARD JR
“One of the most important prehistoric Native American artworks depicts a Florida panther. Known as the Key Marco cat, this six-inch-high figurine has a cat’s head and the body of a kneeling human.
Archeologist Frank Cushing, who led an 1896 expedition that unearthed it from peaty muck in Marco Island, south of Naples, called it the “mountain lion god.” He praised it as being “equal in all ways to any [artifact] from Egypt or Assyria.”
It was carved by Calusa or Muspa people sometime between 500 and 1,500 years ago, made of native hardwood, finely featured, and highly polished. When I saw it at the Marco Island Historical Museum just before the COVID pandemic began in March 2020, I was genuinely awestruck. It was crafted with extreme skill and reverence—and leaves a lasting impression.
This piece of art reminds us that the Florida panther’s story, and its relationship to humans, are complex and mysterious. Here is some of that tale.
Confusion and fear
Before Europeans arrived, mountain lions were found throughout most of North America. Over time, the animals were hunted and trapped widely; they eventually were almost eliminated from the eastern half of the United States. But a tiny population of Florida panthers, a type of mountain lion, held out in the swamps and forests in the southwestern part of the state.
European settlers greatly feared and reviled these cats, and were generally confused about what exactly they were; early accounts referred to them as “tygers,” lions, and leopards. They were eventually classified as unique New World cats, and referred to by many names, including pumas, cougars, catamounts, panthers, mountain lions, and more. Naturalists proposed that there were many different subspecies, a view that held sway until late in the 1900s. Now, all mountain lions and pumas throughout their range are thought to be the same species.
Top: Trailed by her two cubs, a female panther strides through a forested trail on Babcock Ranch State Preserve east of Fort Myers, Florida. She is the first female panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973.
Bottom: During Art Basel Miami 2018, Diana Garcia puts the finishing touches on her mural honoring the first female Florida panther to reclaim territory in the Northern Everglades.
Government agencies often sponsored hunts of the cats. In 1887, the state of Florida offered a bounty of $5 per panther pelt, the equivalent of over $150 in today’s dollars, according to a literature review written by Jesse Schneider, a historical ecologist and PhD student at the University of Miami.
The hunting soon took its toll, even in the feline’s last eastern stronghold. By the 1930s, it seemed the animals had gone extinct, although a few sightings and killings were soon reported near Big Cypress swamp. Finally, in 1958, the state passed a law making it illegal to hunt the animals, and they were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Native American cultures in the Southeast and beyond always felt much differently, considering the cats creatures of great spiritual importance and power.
“This is an animal of extreme significance,” Schneider says. “There’s a deep reverence for the panther.”
Native writer Betty Mae Jumper, in “Legends of the Seminoles,” tells the story of how the panther was the first creature to walk the Earth, following the wishes of the Creator. The cats were afforded special powers and secrets that could be shared with others, and bestowed a level of respect comparable to that given to eagles by other tribes.
One Cherokee story also casts the panther in a heroic light, as relayed by the scholar Ryan Wheeler: “When the Earth was first made the animals and plants were advised to stay awake for seven days; among the animals, only the owl and the panther and a few others were able to stay awake—and to these were given the ability to see at night and [hunt].”
In Seminole and Miccosukee culture, the panther is the namesake for a tribal clan—the panther clan—to which medicine men have historically belonged.
The panther could also play an antagonistic role. In one tale, a panther kills a pregnant woman, whose unborn twins eventually become thunder and lightning. Some stories warn of “underwater panthers,” which can bring misfortune and death. But the animal is always given a healthy respect, and archeological records suggest that it was not commonly hunted and eaten.
But there are exceptions. In December 1983, James Billie, the long-time chief of the Seminoles, shot a panther on the Big Cypress Reservation in southern Florida and ate some of it. “It tasted like deer,” he said in an interview I did with him at his home, defending his actions as culturally appropriate. Though the federal government attempted to press charges, eventually the case was dropped.
Coming full circle?
After hunting became illegal, nobody really knew if any Florida panthers were left alive—or if there were even any cougars east of the Mississippi. Various states, including Florida, hired legendary trapper Roy McBride to see if he could find any.
“There was no hard evidence that there were any left in the eastern U.S., so they had me come look and I’d look in all the places I thought I had a chance of finding one,” he recalls. “I never found any ‘till I got to Florida.” That was in 1973, when McBride spotted a female at Fisheating Creek, north of LaBelle.
The inbred population was rescued by an unprecedented and successful gambit involving the introduction of eight Texas cougars—also caught and transported by McBride—which were released to breed with Florida panthers in the 1990s and then removed to preserve the Florida panther’s genetic purity.
Today, somewhere around 200 panthers remain, an incredible story of ecological recovery—but one that is by no means assured. To survive, panthers need to expand to the north because there’s not enough room for them in South Florida. To do that, more green spaces must be protected and more done to prevent vehicle strikes and habitat loss.
Nowadays, Florida panthers are, once again, generally revered and celebrated. They are the official animal of the Sunshine State and the namesake of an NHL hockey team (which is currently in the playoffs).
The Marco cat, being part panther and human, is strongly suggestive of a shamanic transformation, an aspect of Indigenous belief wherein people—shamans especially—turn into animals, and vice versa, as part of a healing ceremony or quest. While that’s outside most people’s experience, perhaps it could invite us to see the world through the eyes of the panther.
Florida rancher Cary Lightsey has said that charismatic animals such as panthers can give people a reason to care about protecting green spaces, like ranchland, that is necessary for maintaining the ecological health and natural character of the state.
“The Florida panther will help us save Florida,” he says.