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Endangered Florida panthers feel the squeeze

The big cats need plenty of space, which can put them in conflict with expanding development in the state.

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Conservationists, developers, and residents take sides over the Florida panther. Only an estimated 100 remain in the wild.

Tim Donovan/Florida Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation Commission

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As southwest Florida struggles through the recession, the highly endangered Florida panther, which has lost much of its habitat to strip malls and gated communities, might have been expected to benefit from tough times.

But efforts to save the official state animal – only about 100 remain in the wild – have raised questions over whether the cats’ survival is compatible with more development. Even with thousands of foreclosed and unsold homes glutting the market, new communities are in planning stages.

The big problem for the panthers is that their habitat overlaps populated areas and they need quite a bit of space to survive, say conservationists.

Traveling alone, a male panther requires about 200 square miles of territory and is liable to kill other males who venture onto its turf.

Cars are the other major panther menace, killing at least eight so far this year, including three in one week, although roadside fences and highway underpasses have been constructed in some areas to block the felines from running across roads.

Weighing up to 150 pounds, panthers are sleek hunters, capable of overcoming a deer or a wild boar.

When panthers yawn, they flash no-nonsense wildcat fangs. Instead of the expected roar, however, they let out mewling chirps that sound as though they could have come from a pet kitten.

Few people admit to being completely opposed to the panthers, but the animals have stirred up some resentment among Floridians because they pass through residential areas and sometimes attack pets. There are no recorded instances of a panther attacking a person.

Last spring a panther was found shot. The perpetrator has not been caught.

Recent concerns over the panthers’ survival have focused on a proposed new development in Collier County called Big Cypress, where Collier Enterprises is planning a town of 9,000 homes, plus businesses, retail stores, schools, and parks.

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