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Monday, May 24, 2004

Big cats said to roam Volusia, but sightings unconfirmed

By JORDAN KAHN
NEWS-JOURNAL OUTDOORS WRITER

In Volusia County, panthers are confined to living like mythic beasts from an ancient age — they may crawl through the shadowy wilderness of the imagination, but never through reality.

For it is the position of state and federal wildlife officials that panthers live almost exclusively in Southwest Florida. No local sighting has been confirmed in 20 years. Any mention of the plethora of local panther stories is met with wary cautions about not believing everything you hear.

Did You Know?

Tracking panthers through dense forests and swamps is yet another use for Global Positioning System satellites.

– The first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

– In 1958, a U.S. Army Jupiter-C rocket launched Explorer I, the first American satellite, into Earth orbit.

– The U.S. Department of Defense began developing the Global Positioning System in 1973 to provide 24-hour, complete global satellite coverage. The final satellites in the system were operating in their assigned orbits by December 1993. The U.S. Air Force Space Command declared the system of 24 satellites fully operational in April 1995.

– Lotek Engineering Inc. introduced the first animal-based GPS location system in 1994. Animal collars with the GPS technology exchange information with one of 24 satellites that circle the Earth to calculate the animal’s location. The information may be stored in the collar or transmitted to another receiver.

SOURCES: U.S. Naval Observatory and the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

But believers are out there, and their tales suggest this may still be panther country.

Hal Cobb of DeLand has flown choppers for the county mosquito control program for 23 years. In August, he said, he watched a panther in the Tomoka Basin for 20 minutes, only a mile away from the peninsula’s lighted streets.

Glancing down, he saw the white ears and realized a panther was watching him.

“I dropped down and the cat ran,” he said. “The animal was so amazing in its ability to hide. It would run 50 or 70 feet and drop down in the grass and just totally disappear.”

Cobb reported the encounter to Tomoka State Park and was told many sightings have been reported in that area — which includes The Loop, where the blood-chilling screams of panthers are a fixture of local lore. Yet, these stories are discounted as “unofficial.”

Perhaps no one is more convinced of the constant presence of these cats in the basin than Ormond Beach native Keith Beach.

“I guess it was back in the mid-’80s,” said Beach. “Me and a friend of mine were off Old Dixie Highway at nighttime and had stopped up in there and heard a big cat screaming.”

Having heard the infamous description of panther screams “sounding like a woman being murdered,” Beach knew it was a panther and was left with this impression: “It’s a sound that you really don’t want to ever hear again.”

Beach’s present job at the Halifax Plantation golf course offers occasional reminders of that night.

“From time to time, I see panther tracks in the sand traps all through the back and on the dirt road behind the complex,” he said. “Panthers have been around there for a long time.”

Steve Kintner, director of Volusia County Environmental Management, hears these stories all the time and gets two or three new reports every year.

Asked if it was possible that panthers are out there, one step ahead of being boxed-in by the modern world, Kintner said, “Do you know that picture taken from space of the Earth at night and you can see all the lights?

“Well, there is a lot of very dark area in Central Florida. And, if you look on a map, the southern swing of Spruce Creek runs 25 miles all the way from State Road 44 all the way down to Maytown Road and that is virtually impenetrable woods.”

Volusia’s wilderness is part of a patchwork of wildlife management areas, timber tracts, national forests, state parks and undeveloped lands extending from Brevard to Flagler counties.

However, Kintner said, when these cats sightings are tracked down, they usually find exotic pets or hybrid cougars, not endangered Florida panthers. Two or three years ago, big-cat sightings in Port Orange turned out to be just such a case.

“They had a picture of it and, for all the world, it looked like a panther until we really got to looking at it,” Kintner said. “But it was a hybrid. It looked like a large bobcat with a long tail.”

And, as it turns out, Volusia County has a few famous domesticated panthers.

Beach, like many people, was astonished the first time he saw a couple walking their cougar and pet poodles on leashes near the Tomoka State Park boat ramp. And local native Rick Smith remembers the panther photo-op tourist trap at the Main Street Bridge in the ’60s.

Encountering a wild panther isn’t your ordinarynature-watching Kodak moment, though. Primal fear is instinctively awakened.

David Dick of Deltona grew up in Volusia County an avid outdoorsman and said he has seen panthers twice. One sighting was 20 years ago on Maytown Road between Osteen and Oak Hill.

“I was driving home from a night of playing cards. The road had just been graded, and I saw something slide over the berm up ahead on the side of the road. There was a big full moon out. I thought it must be an otter or a bobcat or something. As we got closer, I hit the brights and you could see how long and sleek it was. It looked right at us. Then it slid over the other berm and into the woods,” he said.

Dick jumped out, struggling to believe his eyes. He ran into the woods, looked down at the tracks and then realized: “What am I doing chasing a panther through the woods!”

Georgia Zern of Spruce Creek also says she had a close encounter with a Florida panther. It happened around 1995. She was preparing to guide a canoe trip at Gamble Place. In narrow backwaters, her way was blocked by a log.

“As I was deciding what to do, I was looking off to the side into the bushes and saw a huge cat head,” Zern said.

The cat looked into her eyes and stood, revealing its long tawny body and the crooked tail of a true Florida panther.

“I started back-paddling out of the creek. It was too narrow to turn the canoe around, and I was so close to this animal, it could have taken one leap and been on top of me.”

As she back-paddled out, the cat followed her.

“I think he was just curious, but that didn’t do my heart any good.”

There are generations of local panther stories. Smith remembers his grandmother telling stories about seeing a panther 50 years ago near the Granada Bridge. And panther sightings still crop up from Port Orange to New Smyrna Beach to Cassadaga.

Cobb believes more than one panther lives in the Tomoka Basin because of the number of wild hog and deer carcasses he sees. Yet, Cobb feels his reports get as much attention as Big Foot sightings.

Zern, who now works for Volusia County Environmental Management, said the reluctance to declare this area as panther territory may come from fears that people will be afraid of having these cats nearby or that poachers may hunt them down. State park employees who say they have seen panthers voice these exact concerns.

Wildlife officials may think of these sightings as anecdotes, not evidence. But one thing is certain, as roads and cities box-in Volusia County’s last wild places, these legends are running out of time.

Special Report: THE PANTHER PROJECT
The NIE Panther Project has been designed for middle school and higher.

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