Endangered Florida Panthers Struggle to Walk

closeup of Florida panther
There are only 120 to 130 Florida panthers left in the wild. Tim Donovan/FWC [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Iconic Florida panthers have been captured on trail cameras with what appears to be a neurological disorder that keeps them from walking normally. Their back legs buckle and they seem to have difficulty coordinating them as they walk.

The state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has confirmed neurological damage in one panther and one bobcat. In addition, trailcam footage has spotted eight panthers (mostly kittens) and an adult bobcat that are also showing some problems with walking. Videos of the cats were collected from Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties. Another panther photographed in Charlotte County could also have been affected.

In one video, a kitten stumbles as it struggles to follow its mother and sibling along a trail.

"While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue." said Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, in a statement. "Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined. We're working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a wide array of experts from around the world to determine what is causing this condition."

The agency is testing for several toxins — including rat poison — as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies.

The group is also asking residents to share any personal videos that show the animals struggling to walk. Collecting more photos and videos will help researchers identify the condition.

There are only 120 to 230 Florida panthers left in the wild. They are found primarily in southwest Florida and are the larger of Florida's two native cat species: panthers and bobcats.

Looking for clues

When videos of the ailing panthers were broadcast on Florida news stations, some dog owners thought the symptoms looked familiar.

Several contacted their veterinarians or the media because their pets also were unable to use their back legs normally. In at least one case, a vet thought a dog had canine degenerative myelopathy, a spinal cord disorder that is characterized early on by wobbling in a dog's hind legs.

Fort Meyers news station WINK received several videos of dogs from viewers who thought their pets looked like the struggling panthers. They reached out to the FWC, which said it would look to see if there was a connection.

The FWC is exploring all options, hoping to solve the mystery of what is harming the state's beloved feline. The group reached out on social media, asking the public to not only share footage of panthers, but purchase the "Protect a panther" license plate or donate to the agency.

"Help panthers and bobcats," the group posted. "A disorder has been seen in some Florida panthers and bobcats and we are taking this seriously."