Athena’s story began in June 2017 when a litter of four kittens was first monitored by National Park Service biologists in Big Cypress National Preserve. Biologists later discovered the mother panther had moved three of the kittens, but had left Athena at the original den site when she was just a few weeks old. Following an unfruitful attempt to reunite Athena with her family, the decision was made to remove her from the wild.
After some health issues were addressed by the veterinarians at Animal Speciality Hospital of Florida, Athena came to Naples Zoo where she was cared for behind-the-scenes by the Zoo’s Carnivore Team as well as the Zoo’s veterinarian since August. As research has shown panther kittens need about six months living with their mother to be successfully reintroduced to the wild, Athena will be provided a permanent home at Naples Zoo with the hopes that one day she can be introduced to Uno.
As for the obvious question about whether sighted and blind predators mix together well, the promising news is that it has been done successfully by wildlife professionals in a number of accredited zoos. Naples Zoo’s Director of Animal Programs Liz Harmon explains, “There are minor, if any, issues in these introductions. It’s consistent with what you’d find adding an additional domestic cat into your home.” As Athena needs to be considerably larger before living with Uno, the timing of their introduction will be dependent on her growth and the behavior and interest of both cats.
This pairing is for companionship, not making more panther kittens. With a growing panther population in the wild, the state needs accredited zoos to have exhibits ready to take in orphaned or injured cats. In fact, Athena is the third kitten to receive care at Naples Zoo’s panther facility since it opened in 2015 as part of a collaborative effort with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
To ensure space remains available, Athena has been spayed so she and Uno can be together. Until that day arrives, young Athena enjoys dragging around her stuffed animals and other toys in the behind-the-scenes area while Uno is in the main exhibit. The Carnivore Team will also be working with her to learn behaviors that will help with her daily and medical care. Uno has already learned behaviors that allow keepers to rinse his injured eyes, place insect repellent on his ears, measure his weight, and provide medical injections.
In addition to Naples Zoo’s direct care for panthers, visitor education engages guests in a balanced look at the challenges of living with endangered predators, including highlighting the crucial help that ranchers and other rural landowners offer for conservation by providing habitat for protected wildlife. Guests are also encouraged to visit www.panthercrossing.org where they can reduce the risk to panthers on the roads by committing to drive the posted speeds in panther crossing zones. Purchasing a Florida panther license plate also helps our state animal as nearly 100% of FWC’s panther monitoring, research, and management efforts are funded through this license plate.