Stories of the Swamp

Armchair Interpretive Walks

Friends of Fakahatchee: Dedicated to financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and educate the public about its importance.

Don Juan

The Capture of Florida Panther #79

by Dennis Giardina

“Cougar” McBride with Florida Panther #79 after his capture on February 16, 2006.

“Cougar” McBride with Florida Panther #79 after his capture on February 16, 2006.

Because I have the opportunity to work “hands-on” with Florida panthers in the wild, and because I’ve been asked frequently about this issue, I’d like to mention a couple of things about the capture of Florida Panther 79, “Don Juan,” in Copeland on February 16 (2006). I feel fortunate to be able to contribute in whatever small way to the recovery and management of this species and it is my pleasure to share a bit of it with all of you FOF members.

At ten years plus, Florida Panther 79, was certainly approaching old age for a male panther but he appeared to be very healthy and presumably still able to hunt and kill large, wild prey. About two weeks or so before he was captured and taken into captivity, he started to prey upon domestic animals at several different residences around the western Big Cypress National Preserve. After his second or third depredation, the BCNP Panther Capture Team caught him, inspected him and then relocated him to the far eastern Big Cypress National Preserve. Within two days however, he traveled over twenty miles back to the scene of one of his previous crimes and he tried to get back into a chicken coop that he had torn open several days earlier. I say tried because between then and the first time he visited, Big Cypress personnel strung up an electric wire fence around the chicken cage. I wish I could have seen his reaction when he discovered the electric fence but apparently it shocked him all the way across State Road 29 and into the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve which is interesting because at least while he wore an active radio collar, it is a place that he was never known to visit.

National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Commission personnel began to notify people in the Copeland community about the presence of Panther 79 and within a day or so, he found a pot-bellied pig in a resident’s backyard and killed it. Strangely though, just as he had done in at least one other attack on livestock during the preceding weeks, he did not eat it. On that morning, after the panther recovery team received word of yet another attack, the decision was made to remove Panther 79 from the wild. Members of both capture teams, law enforcement agents and media people convened in the lot next to yard where the pig was killed. Soon thereafter, the panther trackers entered the dense brush behind the house with two hound dogs. Within a short amount of time, using a telemetry receiver to follow the signal of the big cat’s radio- collar, they reached the edge of a little hammock a couple of hundred feet west of Jane’s Scenic Drive. They released the hounds and the startled panther quickly climbed a big live oak tree surrounded by a thicket of Brazilian pepper.

The signal was given for the capture team to enter the hammock and take position as one anesthetic- bearing dart was fired expertly into the cat’s hind quarters. As the post-injection clock ticked, the capture team began to clear the pepper, vines and brush from the area beneath the branch where Panther 79 perched nervously. The capture net was spread out and pulled tight. The six persons holding the net shifted anxiously following Panther 79’s movements anticipating where and how he would fall. At six minutes post injection it became apparent that Panther 79 had lost consciousness in the canopy and was not going to fall.

At that point I was given the command to climb and I ascended the pepper branches up to the oak tree trunk as quickly as I could. When I approached the semi-sedated panther, he reacted to me and I was cautioned from the ground to back off for a minute to let the drug take a bit more of an affect. Panther 79 was mostly still when I resumed my approach and I stretched the rope I carried with me underneath his forelegs and around his back. I tied a knot and slipped it down tight. I tossed the bulk of the climbing rope down to the team and began to try to work the heavy cat out of the forked branches where he was hung up. I had very little leverage; I couldn’t stand up to lift him so I had to wrap my arms around him and work him towards me to position him to be lowered down. As I did, he growled, our heads so close I could feel his breath on my face. I eased him back away from me and he gave a defensive hiss, his eyes fixing upon me, then crossing and rolling into unconsciousness.

In a calm, non-threatening manner I talked to Panther 79 as I do all the panthers I have to interact with, telling him to just take it easy and to work with me, and good boy… good boy. I pulled the claws of his rear paw out from deep in the branch and slowly rolled him over the left side. What complicated that maneuver was a small broken branch beneath the cat that I didn’t see, which caught underneath the noose right in the center of his chest and for a minute, Panther 79 hung in mid air suspended by it. Fearing that in spite of all my effort he would slip out of the noose and plummet to the ground, I tried to lift the rope over the six-inch stub but I couldn’t. No one on the ground could see the look of sheer panic on my face as I grabbed hold of that branch with both hands and frantically rocked back and forth on it with all my weight. After a few seconds I felt it give way and it broke enough to finally lift the loop over it. I yelled to the team below to take up the slack and pull hard. In a dream-like state of relief and elation, I watched Panther 79 slowly descending. Once he touched the ground, he regained consciousness somewhat and the team piled on to pin him down and sedate him. I remained in the canopy for a minute longer, catching my breath, looking down, feeling extremely lucky and grateful.

Panther 79 was taken to the University of Florida, School of Veterinary Medicine where he was given a full examination. Nothing abnormal was found. In every physical sense, Panther 79 appeared to be in good health. At the moment, Panther 79 is living away from the public eye at Busch Gardens. He seems to be adapting to captivity. He is eating. Caged wild panthers have been known to bite relentlessly at their chain-link enclosures and break their canines. So far he has not. The question remains though, why did Panther 79 leave the wilderness and wild prey and shift to hanging around humans and preying on their pets and livestock? I don’t know if we’ll ever know. Another question is did the capture teams and their agencies react appropriately and expeditiously to this situation? Did logic and science and the protocol of the problem panther response plan effectively guide the decisions and actions made on all levels? I would have to say yes. Regardless how anyone may have felt personally about removing this magnificent animal from the wild and putting him

in captivity for the rest of his life, everyone knew it was what needed to be done. As the Florida panther population continues to grow and their active range continues to expand, we will have to be vigilant. We will continue to communicate with individuals and communities in rural areas to provide information about protecting pets and livestock, and avoiding encounters with panthers. At the same time, we have to be cautious not to let emotional, irrational or unscientific concerns dictate our responses or management strategies. I have been saying, and I believe, that human beings and panthers can coexist. We have to be aware of them and take precautions not to attract them. They have to remain very wary of us.

Dennis Giardina is actively involved with Florida Panther Capture and is the Manager of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.

Lost for a Century

Finding the “mossy helmet” in Fakahatchee Strand

by Russell Clusman

rclusman@Miami.edu

It was a perfect January morning. The sky was clear the air was dry and a pleasant 74 degrees. I turned my vehicle off of Janes Scenic Drive onto the white gravel road of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park’s offices. There I met up with a few members of our group and stretched my muscles, sore after the long ride from Miami. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries and awaited the last member’s arrival. Already my pulse was quickening in anticipation of the day’s events with our seasoned, fun-loving field companions. A brief discussion of the day’s strategy, a few laughs and last minute equipment checks and we were on our way.

We entered the swamp, our destination, the heart and arteries of Southwest Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand. Our small company, of varied interests and backgrounds, was intent on exploring new areas to observe, document and photograph all of the rare flora and fauna, as well as digest the beauty of this wilderness. Although I thoroughly enjoy every moment I have in the Fakahatchee, I hope in some small way we are contributing to the vast body of knowledge of this magnificent cypress strand and continue to offer more reason to preserve this natural wonder. The trek is arduous, but this company was focused only on the rewards. Little did we know what treasure was waiting for us to discover!

The first slough we entered looked like it had potential. We split into smaller groups and headed south, interrupting the silence by communicating with an occasional shout of “hooty-hoo” or the calling out of a threatened or endangered orchid, bromeliad, or fern. An hour had passed and I was not impressed with the area. The slough became shallow and my quest was the deeper limestone troughs that have been dug by Mother Nature throughout the centuries. The slow flow of water has gradually eroded the limestone to form a kind of stream within the strand. The predominant trees along the edges of these deeper areas are pond apple and pop ash. It is here that these trees become festooned with rare epiphytes. We altered our search pattern and intercepted a great looking slough. I broke south while the rest headed north.

Mike Owen, the Park’s biologist, and his assistant, Karen Relish, teamed up on their northerly trek. Karen, while slogging, was intently recording the rare flora she encountered up in the tree branches, cypress knees, stumps and logs (fallen dead trees). Something different caught her eye so she called out to Mike for further examination. There on a seven- foot long prostrate log laden with moss was a group of small plants with their roots embedded in the abundant moss. Several plants were in bloom and after a cursory examination, Mike believed they were orchids, so they carefully removed a specimen for identification.

I returned to Janes Drive about 20 minutes ahead of Mike and Karen. When they emerged out of the water, they told me about their find and proceeded to remove the carefully wrapped plant out of a backpack. Upon seeing it, I immediately identified it as Cranichis muscosa and 1903 flashed in my mind like a blinking neon sign. But could this really be? I called out to Saul Friess, a member of our group, in the hope that he had his copy of The Wild Orchids of Florida by Paul Brown, which he usually carries with him.

Intent on confirming its identity I excitedly turned the pages to the index and than to the photo of the plant, I loudly exclaimed “touchdown”, an expression this group uses when we discover something special or unusual. For me the moment was truly thrilling. I don’t think my companions realized the enormity of the find but my zealous enthusiasm eventually caught on. Plans to return the next day for photographs were confirmed and I had a euphoric ride back to Miami.

The genus of Cranichis is comprised of approximately 30 species (Luer, 1972). Cranichis muscosa is a small terrestrial or semi-epiphytic orchid approximately 4 to 10 inches in height when in bloom. It has a peculiar basal rosette of leaves which are petiolate and green to light green in color. The spike has several bracts as it ascends. The flowers are white with greenish speckles. I found it to be similar to Platanthera nivea. Cranichis is derived from the Greek words meaning, “having a helmet” and muscosa from the Latin word meaning “mossy” (Correll, 1950). These words clearly describe this little gem because the lip, which is uppermost, forms a cover over the column and our plants were found imbedded in abundant moss.

J.E. Layne first collected a specimen in May of 1903 in Lee County (Correll, 1950), which included the Fakahatchee at the time. In December that same year A.A. Eaton vouchered a specimen in Dade County (Correll, 1950). I have since learned that Eaton collected another specimen in 1905 in Dade County (Gann, Bradley, Woodmansee, 2002). In a personal communication, Dr. Carlyle Luer, the author of the landmark book The Native Orchids of Florida (1972) advised this writer that he had seen it once in Florida but there is no formal record of this sighting to my knowledge. The moss orchid’s range extends from Mexico to the West Indies then down into Central and South America and is now re- confirmed that it also occurs in Florida.

This colony we saw was made up of 40 individual plants of which seven were in bloom. Three of these plants were growing on a cypress knee a few feet away. The best news is that Mike believes he has seen this plant at three other locations within the strand and we hope to investigate for confirmation in the next few weeks.

If you are ever in south Florida and orchids are your agenda I suggest a trip to the Fakahatchee. The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (FSPSP) is a unique swamp forest that is approximately twenty miles long and three to five miles wide. This 80,000- acre wilderness has a diverse plant and animal population. It has 44 species of orchids and numerous threatened or endangered ferns and bromeliads; many not found anywhere else in the United States. It is home to the Florida Panther, Everglades Mink, and Florida Black Bear. Late October through November is an excellent time to visit the strand. The temperature is cooler and you may see many epiphytic orchids in bloom. June through July we consider the best time to see the infamous Dendrophylax lindenii, ghost orchid, in bloom. You may need to pack some mosquito repellent because they may be somewhat pesky during the summer. For information regarding ranger-led swamp walks contact the Park Manager, at (239) 695-4593 or see their website.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the FSPSP Citizen Support Organization, the Friends of the Fakahatchee, contact them at orchidswamp.org. This is a worthwhile organization dedicated to support and educational activities specific to this Florida natural wonder.

Group members:

  • Mike Owen, FSPSP Biologist
  • Karen Relish, FSPSP Biologist’s Assistant
  • Saul Friess, Professional Photographer
  • Robin Drake, Americorp Environmental Sciences Educator
  • Rick Janiec, Outdoor Enthusiast
  • Russell Clusman, Orchid Enthusiast

References:

  • Luer, C.A. 1972. The Native Orchids of Florida, New York: The New York Botanical Garden. 85p.
  • Correll, D.S. 1978. Native Orchids of North America North of Mexico, California: Stanford University Press. 179p. Gann, G.D., Bradley, K.A., Woodmansee, S. W. 2002. Rare
  • Plants of South Florida: Their History, Conservation, and Restoration, Florida: The Institute for Regional Conservation. 75p.
  • For a photo of Cranichis muscosa, see pages 64-65 in Wild Orchids of Florida by Paul Martin Brown.