Close Encounters with Florida Wild Cats

Photo by FL Dept of State Historical Resources
The best adventures are often spontaneous and sometimes you are unaware just how close the danger was until moments after it has passed. It is February and here in the Sunshine State it has finally gotten cold. Granted 57 degrees in midday is nothing to shiver about but it is enough to force Floridians into coats and pants. It is also cold enough to force larger animals into the open to hunt for food.

It is not often you run into a large cat in the wild but I have unusual luck. I was out for a mountain bike ride and decided to explore some trails in an area I had previous avoided for just this reason. I don't want to name the area because it would be better for all involved if the cats remain undisturbed. Also, I didn't have a camera on me so I had to steal these random photos from organizations that look out for big Florida cats. Here is how my ride unfolded.

I was peddling down a long dirt road when I took a sharp right into a grassy meadow. After only a few pedal strokes I stopped cold, a full grown Bobcat walked right out in front of me. It was only fifteen feet away and it also froze the moment it realized my presence. I did not move a muscle as the cat sat down and stared at me while also keeping an ear to the woods behind it. This stare down lasted for a good two minutes with neither of us making more than the slightest of movements.

This cat was beautiful. It was about the size of a small dog, around forty pounds with black markings on its right cheek and ear. It was that same ear that flickered back and forth listening in another direction. It considered me with little fear for a good long time before bounding back the way it had come. I rode down the trail far behind and watched as it disappeared into the saw palmetto trees.

Elated by the brief experience with this wonderful animal I decided to continue exploring. It wasn't the first time I had seen a Bobcat, it was the fourth actually. It was, however, the closest I had ever been to one. Bobcats are common in Florida, they can be found in every county and are considered a fur-bearing game animal, sometimes hunted during certain months of the year.

Riding MTB in Florida you see a lot of animals. In fact I like to count them on my Tuesday night group rides in the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve. We see hogs, armadillos, snakes, rabbits and even a few alligators. Seeing one Bobcat would not be worthy of a story had it not been for what came next.

After reaching an impasse down a deep sand trail I spun around and found another turn off. The woods were deathly quiet and my eyes were wide open as I knew the Bobcat couldn't be too far away. It is mating season for Bobcats and during this time they often travel and hunt as couples.

A short time later I passed the remains of what must have been a vulture. Long black feathers were scattered across a five foot wide area with fresh blood splattered about. Again I thought of the Bobcat. Perhaps this was its most recent meal. I took a right turn into a darker trail with dense woods and followed it to a small grassy hill. That is where I spotted the first track.

The track was as large as my hand but went more than an inch deep into the sand. I wasn't sure what made the print. It was too large for a Bobcat. I thought it had to be a dog. I studied the off camber hill for human prints to see if someone was walking their Rottweiler out here but there were none. No boots, no tire tracks other than my own, only a set of large, deep tracks from a big animal.

I continued slowly down the trail looking forward for movement and listening to the woods around me. The more prints I saw, I more nervous I got. These did not look like dog tracks but if it wasn't a dog, that left only one option.

I came around a wide corner peddling slowly and as I raised my eyes to the path ahead, there it was - a huge Florida Panther. It was leaving the trail, its long, tan body and narrow tail following behind. I'm pretty sure that it didn't get a look at me as I stood there in total disbelief. I was doubting what I had just seen and yet I would have to pass that spot to continue forward. There was no other way around and the way back would circle me in the direction the panther was heading. To see one is like winning the animal lottery, it is extremely rare.

I stopped and waited giving the panther time to move further away before I continued but now I didn't know where it was. Slowly, quietly I came up the path watching for movement but there was none. When I reached the trail split I looked in every direction and there was no sign of it. It was gone.

I grew up worshiping the big cats but living in Massachusetts I never had the chance to see one that wasn't in a cage. It is just amazing to me, to finally see one in the wild. There are only about 100-150 Florida Panthers in existence making it an endangered species. They are solitary creatures that usually hunt at night (Except in the winter) and prefer the thickest areas of cypress, swamp or pinelands for their lairs.

As soon as I got home I went to Florida Panther Net and reported the animals whereabouts. This website provides public education about panthers and maintains conservation efforts to help keep them alive. By reporting its location this will allow them to keep a running tally of the number of cats and where they have been sighted.

If you see a Panther in the wild please report it to:

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