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AAHA’s only accredited zoo saves the lives of two panther kittens in Florida

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(Cynthia Strinfield, DVM, right, helps examine a young panther at AAHA-accredited ZooTampa. Photo courtesy of ZooTampa)

Last July, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) trail cameras caught footage of a radio-collared, female panther in the wild who appeared to be struggling to walk.

She also appeared to be pregnant.

The panther was exhibiting sings of a crippling neurological condition observed in more than half a dozen panthers and at least one bobcat in southern Florida. The mysterious and as yet unidentified condition affects the animals’ ability to control their back legs.

Concerned about the health of both mother-to-be and her pending brood, the FWC decided to monitor the situation.

After the panther took to her den and gave birth to two kittens, the FWC stepped in, removed the kittens from the care of their clearly debilitated mother, and asked AAHA-accredited ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida, to take them in.

Home to 1,300 animals, ZooTampa is also home to the Jacarlene Foundation Animal Care Campus, a state-of-the-art, onsite veterinary complex dedicated to the daily care of the animals. Cynthia Stringfield, DVM, ZooTampa’ s head veterinarian, told NEWStat that the agency made the right call. “They were very concerned, and rightly so, that the kittens wouldn’t survive,” Stringfield said.

ZooTampa works closely with the FWC and had taken in sick panthers before; the zoo is already home to three adult panthers who are unable to survive on their own in the wild.

Stringfield said the mom would have a better chance of survival if she didn’t have the distraction of raising her newborns. “It would take the pressure off her and also ensure the kittens’ survival, because having all three animals die [due to] this situation would be the worst possible outcome.”

And the most likely.

So Stringfield and her staff took the kittens in, bottle fed them, and raised them by hand. Two weeks old at the time, the kittens lived. Thrived. And, unfortunately, got used to their human caretakers.

“They like people, so they can’t ever go back out,” Stringfield said. “They don’t have the skills to survive in the wild.”

So ZooTampa’s three panthers have become five. Stringfield says the kittens will live out their lives there: “They’ll have a great life and a much better life than they likely would have had. I’m sure they wouldn’t have survived.”

Mom didn’t fare as well.

Stringfield said the FWC continued to monitor her closely after removing the kittens, but her condition worsened—eventually she grew so debilitated that she had to be brought in and euthanized for her own welfare.

“That was a really sad decision,” Stringfield said. But hopefully not a futile one—specialists performed a battery of tests on her in hopes of discovering a clue to her condition. “They’re looking for everything. Infectious diseases, environmental causes. Results are pending, but at the moment it’s still a mystery.”

As for the kittens, Stringfield said the prognosis is excellent. “They were watched very closely and evaluated very thoroughly. We haven’t found anything and they seem to be fine.”