Experts said panthers have been spotted this far north before, but development is infringing on the big cat’s habitat. People who live in the Beverly Rise subdivision were shocked to hear about a surprise visitor last week.
"One of my neighbors sent me the video and informed me, because I take care of my daughter’s dog and said be careful at night when you walk out," said Kalpesh Patel.
Dr. Carol Rizkalla, Florida Panther Management Coordinator for FWC, said the panther was just passing through.
She said the panther is most likely a male looking for territory to call home. The big cats have been spotted this far north in the past, however, the only breeding population remains in the southwestern part of the state.
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"Once a young panther grows up, it gets to be about two, three years old. He is going to try and find an area of his own, and so they're moving far and wide," Rizkalla explained.
The panther prowling in South Lakeland is actually the second sighting this month, but the other one was not seen alive. A 2.5-year-old male was hit and killed by a vehicle on the Polk Parkway about two weeks ago.
The death marked 11 panthers killed so far this year on Florida roadways. However, FWC said the number one threat to panthers is habitat loss.
"I don’t see any hiding place they can hide easily, because a lot of orange grove used to be is now turned into subdivisions," said Patel.
"We’ve had a lot of bobcats too around the area, and I think it’s because of all the neighborhoods they’re building around here," added Jeff Burnett.
Conservation groups have been working to preserve natural land across the state, so panthers and other wildlife have protected places to live and thrive.
"We want to be able to sustain panthers throughout the state and let them peacefully coexist with the human population," Rizkalla said.
Experts said panthers prefer areas with dense trees and shrubs they can hide in, and the cats typically move around after dark.