State wildlife researchers rescued two newborn Florida panther kittens from the wild after the kittens' mother abandoned them.
Dr. Mark Cunningham, wildlife veterinarian for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), transported the 3-week-old kittens to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The kittens, both females, are receiving round-the-clock care by zoo veterinarians and staff.
FWC biologist Darrell Land, who heads the agency's south Florida panther research, said scientists are puzzled by the mother's abandonment of the kittens, especially since it occurred so soon after giving birth to them.
"We have monitored more than 180 kittens and have never seen any kind of abandonment," Land said. "The field sign suggests the mother went back into estrous (the condition of being receptive to mating) three weeks after giving birth."
Usually, the mother would not go back into estrous until the kittens are a couple of years old or something happens to them.
"The hormone changes that initiate estrous stop milk production and prevent the mother from being able to care for the kittens," Land said. "What triggered these changes is unknown."
Karl Kranz, director of biological programs at the zoo, said the kittens probably will not return to the wild.
"But they could very likely resurrect the Florida panther captive-breeding program at some point if state wildlife officials decide to undertake such a program," Kranz said.
Land said the kittens lived in the northern part of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Their mother, a 5-year-old, full-blooded Florida panther known to researchers as FP107, was unsuccessful in raising two previous litters. Male panthers FP119 and FP131 are possible sires of the two newborns. FP107 was in the company of FP131 when she abandoned the kittens last week.
When researchers first suspected FP107 had abandoned the kittens, they placed monitoring equipment at their den site to confirm whether the mother returned to tend the kittens. FP107 did not return to the den between March 14 and March 20, and the kittens lost 20 percent of their weight during that period. At that point FWC biologists rescued the kittens and placed them in the care of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, which has the required permits and expertise to care for Florida panthers.
"For more than 90 years, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been dedicated to inspiring the discovery and appreciation of wildlife through innovative experiences in a caring environment," said zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Vrban. "The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens offers over 2,000 rare and exotic animals and over 1,000 unique plant species. The zoo is a non-profit organization and is an accredited member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA)."
More information about the zoo is available at www.jacksonvillezoo.org.
More information about Florida panthers is available at the FWC's Web site, MyFWC.com.
The Florida panther is the official state animal. Scientists believe fewer than 100 of them still exist in the wild.