The Story of Uno: The Blind Florida Panther Who Became an Ambassador
By Hannah O. Brown
Photos courtesy: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission & Naples Zoo
On the side of a busy road near Immokalee, a young Florida panther — who would later be called Uno — lay covered in open sores, unable to see and with a belly full of sand.
Uno didn’t respond to the flashing blue lights of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office vehicles. And he didn’t seem to notice the traffic barreling past or a cautious panther biologist sidling up beside him to administer an anesthetic via a pressurized dart.
“I initially thought that one of his legs was broken and the bone was poking out. That’s how skinny he was,” said Mark Lotz, the Florida panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who administered the dart.
Uno was believed to be about 2 years old when he was found in 2014. X-ray scans revealed two clusters of birdshot embedded in his body — one in his face and one in his hindquarters.
“We don’t know the exact circumstance,” Lotz said, “whether somebody just saw him and took a shot, or if he was actually causing problems in somebody’s yard and they took a shot. But it looks like he was looking at somebody, and they fired. He turned and ran away, and they shot again.”
Lotz believes the large amount of sand that had accumulated in Uno’s intestines was either from licking water out of puddles or surviving off of roadkill.
All in all, Uno was in bad shape.
Uno was the first Florida panther treated at the veterinary hospital at the Lowry Park Zoo, which is now called ZooTampa. That’s how he got his name.
Because of his condition, FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicedetermined that Uno wouldn’t make it in the swamps of wild Florida, so they set out to find Uno a captive home.
Luckily, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens had already been preparing. They were in the process of constructing a large exhibit for Florida panthers with multiple enclosures to treat injured animals.
Texas Pumas Reinvigorate an Endangered Species
The Naples Zoo is about 30 miles west of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, a 26,400-acre swath of land where it is estimated the 12–16 Florida panthers roam, hunt or den each month.
The Florida panther is considered the most endangered mammal in the eastern U.S. They are a subspecies of the North American puma, which are also known as mountain lions or cougars in other areas of the continent. Their range historically extended from Arkansas and Louisiana, across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and parts of South Carolina.
Today, Florida panthers only live in five percent of that range, with a single breeding population located south of the Caloosahatchee River. About 230 panthers were believed to live in Florida in 2015. And though that number seems low, it’s a tremendous increase from the early 1970s, when only 20 panthers were believed to live in the state.
A genetic restoration project that involved the introduction of eight Texas pumas in 1995 has been lauded as one reason for the increase in the Florida panther population and the inclusion of a more diverse gene pool. Genetic diversity helps prevent side effects of inbreeding such as heart defects, undescended testicles and a kinked tail.
As the population has recovered, male panthers have expanded their range — with some traversing as far north as Georgia. However, it wasn’t until recently that females have ventured out of South Florida. Two female panthers have been seen north of the Caloosahatchee River, bringing with them the possibility of breeding potential in the northern areas of the state.
Taking it in Stride
When the Naples Zoo received the call from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a blind panther who needed a home, they were warned that the zoo may not want to take him because of his condition.
“We felt like we could do a good job by him,” said Liz Harmon, Director of Animal Programs at the Naples Zoo, “that we could tell his story and his story would be very powerful, more powerful than having a perfect-looking Florida panther that had just been removed for one reason or another.”
At first, the zoo staff was worried that he may be depressed. Uno didn’t seem to be moving much. Instead they saw him lying around throughout the day. But as soon as they set up cameras to capture his activities at night, Uno’s personality began to shine. It was in the evenings that he would become active.
“We have some of the greatest video of him playing,” Harmon said.
Harmon said Uno took everything in stride.
“There were things that phased him but not to the extent of some animals. You know he would definitely tell you if he was unhappy with something, but then he would just sit back and think about it, it seemed like, and then he would just move forward with life.”
He quickly developed relationships with his keepers — and Harmon said he definitely had his favorites.
“We think he could identify us by our steps and the sound of our keys before we would even say a word,” she said.
He learned to come when he was called. He would lie against the fence every morning while trainers squirted eye drops in his eyes and swabbed out dirt and other matter. One side effect of the shot to his face was that he was unable to blink well.
Harmon said he seemed very comfortable in the exhibit, especially when food was involved. He seemed to love eating and was fond of receiving whole prey. Quail, rabbits, rats. A couple of times he managed to catch a possum or a squirrel in his enclosure on his own.
“He would have porked out something fierce,” Harmon laughed.
Uno’s keepers were quite enamored with him, and their love for him came through in the Keeper Talks that they used to tell his story to zoo audiences every day. People were sympathetic to his story, and he inspired many to prioritize conservation for Florida panthers in their own lives.
“He was an incredible cat,” Harmon said. “I’ve worked with cats for 30 years, and he’s probably one of the most amazing animals I’ve worked with. He was just fabulous.”
In early September, Uno underwent an operation to remove his blue eye, which had developed two ulcers.
“You could tell it was painful to him,” Harmon said. “He was squinting, and he would wipe his paw on it. He wasn’t comfortable with it at all.”
Uno had a bad reaction to the pain medication that was given to him after the surgery. His keepers kept a close watch on him and, after a while, he seemed to be recovering. He never liked being outside, so his keepers gave him access to the patio where they could limit his exposure to dirt while allowing him a little fresh air.
“He got out in the air, and he seemed super happy,” Harmon said. “He was walking around in the patio drinking water, responding to the keepers.”
The keepers left for lunch, and when they returned a half an hour later, Uno was dead.
“It was very, very hard,” Harmon said. “It’s just one of those bizarre situations where we may never know exactly what caused him to react that way or cause him to die, which is heartbreaking.”
A Range Expanded
Uno was believed to be 6 years old when he died from uncertain circumstances, which is likely much longer than he would have survived with his injuries in the wilderness. Research shows that wild Florida panthers can live up to 20 years or more.
Females typically live longer than males, partly because more males are killed in vehicle collisions — the leading cause of mortality. FWC estimates that 59 percent of known Florida panther deaths are due to collisions on Florida roadways. As the population of Florida panthers has increased, so has the number of panther road kills annually.
FWC Panther Biologist Mark Lotz sees Florida panthers as incredibly resilient, and the problem has more to do with the barriers that people create for the panthers to surmount.
“As a species, they’re more than capable of taking care of things for themselves,” Lotz said. “We just need to get out of their way and let them do it from a biological perspective.”
One way to do that is by creating wildlife corridors and underpasses to keep panthers off of busy roads.
“Where those underpasses are in place, they work wonders,” Lotz said. “But that’s expensive and not a quick fix, and you can’t put them on every single road.”
Ironically, all of the funds for FWC’s panther conservation program comes from the sale of the Florida Panther license plate, adorning the mammoth machines that cause the most damage to their population. Lotz said the license plates bring in about $1.3 million annually.
As Florida panthers move into new areas, they have more opportunities to come into conflict with people. Depredation, or attacks, on domestic animals like livestock and household pets are a major source of conflict in South Florida.
Uno was a living, breathing example of the conflicts between humans and Florida panthers in South Florida, and the Naples Zoo used his story to educate zoo visitors about both sides of the issue. He put a face to both the beauty and the challenges of protecting such a wild species in a state that suffers from constantly encroaching development.
Harmon witnessed many zoo visitors develop feelings of compassion for Florida panthers affecting connecting with Uno.
“They connected with him and wanted to know more about panthers,” she said. “Why this would happen, and how this could happen and what they could do about panthers, so that that other animals weren’t shot.”
Originally published at spark.adobe.com.