Local Accounts of the Florida Panther, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

The range of the Florida Panther used to include the Treasure Coast. (Public photo.)
The historic range of the Florida Panther included the Treasure Coast. (Public photo.)

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s growing up in Stuart, urban legend was that a large, male panther lived on Jupiter Island. Both local fisherman and doctors swore they had seen this panther swimming across the St Lucie Inlet to Seminole Shores, today’s Sailfish Point.

During my childhood, these stories resonated and inflamed my imagination, but  I, myself, never saw a panther…

Now that I am older, I am still fascinated with these captivating creatures eking out a life as an endangered species in a much changed Florida. Recently, I came upon information that helps support my childhood beliefs that until fairly recently, they lived right here in Stuart as I usually associate them with Florida’s west coast.

Let’s take a look…

This map from the state of Florida's "Multi-Species Recovery Plan," shows the historic distribution of the Florida Panther, 1999.
This map from the state of Florida’s “Multi-Species Recovery Plan,” shows the historic distribution of the Florida Panther, 1946.

As seen above, before Florida was “developed,” and the animal was over-hunted; its range included the entire state and far beyond. Today, as seen in the map below, their range has been greatly reduced and no longer includes the Treasure Coast. Sightings and unfortunate “road kills” are usually  in the -south-western part of the state.

Today's county distribution of the Florida panther since 1981, based on radio telemetry data. (Multi -Species recovery plan, 1999.)
Today’s county distribution of the Florida panther since 1981, based on radio telemetry data. (Multi-species recovery plan, 1999.)
Panther habitat FWC/State of Florida.
Panther habitat FWC/State of Florida.

When I started asking my historian mother, Sandra Henderson Thurlow, if there were any accounts of panthers here, she shared a transcript by Rush Hughes of Mrs Ethel Porter taped in 1960. At this point, Mrs Porter was of very advanced age. She lived right here in Stuart in what we know as todays “Owl House,” as a pioneer beginning in the late 1800s until her death.  Her account of seeing a panther at her homestead along  the shore of the St Lucie River is quite entertaining, here is an excerpt:

Did you ever have any trouble with the Indians?

Oh no. No.

Did you ever have any experience with the wild animals?

Well yes. I had company from North Carolina and we heard something coming up the path, where the bank is now. It was crying like a child. And I said, “That cannot be a child, because there is no child anywhere around. It couldn’t be lost because there is no family near enough.” When it got almost opposite the house – it was in the days of lamps – I took a lamp and I went out on the porch and took a lamp and held it above my head and out of a clump of bushes came two great big eyes of fire and I screamed and when I did, I could hear it jumping. Then my husband came in and I told him about it and he said, “You know you have such fear down here that your imagination goes ahead of you.” But next morning we went down on the beach – we used to have beach before the canal – and there was a footprint of a panther that a number two tomato can could not cover.

My goodness – that was a big one!

Yes, but I didn’t mind that like I did the snakes…

In my option,  a woman’s knowledge of a #2 tomato can’s size in the late 1800s is about as solid as documentation gets!

Another sure-fire documentation is a photograph taken along the Indian River Lagoon area in around the 1870’s by Jupiter Lighthouse keeper, James A . Armour and/or Melvin Spencer.  This photograph is widely distributed and is now in the archives of the Historical Society of Palm Beach. The photograph shows a dead, 106 pound, 6 foot 8 inches panther, a sad trophy but reflective of the values of the era.

Shot panther 1870s, area of Jupiter Lighthouse. Photo, Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Shot panther 1870s, area of Jupiter Lighthouse. Photo, Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Today, thankfully, we protect these graceful and secretive creatures and appreciate their struggle to survive…

In closing, before you go to sleep at night, never think that the panthers only belong to Florida’s west coast; they belong here as well. After all, the St Lucie Indian River Lagoon, is really a “jungle….” 🙂

The beautiful Florida panther. (Public photo.)
The beautiful Florida panther. (Public photo.)


Working today for the Florida panther: Florida Wildlife Corridor: (http://www.floridawildlifecorridor.org/about/)

US Fish and Wildlife Florida Panther Recovery Plan: (http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MammalsPDFs/FinalizedFloridaPantherRecoveryPlan081218.pdf)

Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge: (http://www.fws.gov/floridapanther/panther_faq.html) 

Florida Wildlife Commission/panthers: (http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MSRPPDFs/FloridaPanther.pdf)

Florida Wildlife Commission :/panther sightings: (https://public.myfwc.com/hsc/panthersightings/getlatlong.aspx)

Florida Wildlife Commission: Panther Net: (http://www.floridapanthernet.org)

Wikipedia/General information on Florida (Panther:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_panther)

24 thoughts on “Local Accounts of the Florida Panther, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. My friend, Bryan Wall and I saw a panther cross Becker Road back in the late 70s and early 80s. At that time, there was almost zero development. I recall they had just put in a bunch of paved streets, curbs, etc, out past the turnpike, but there were no houses. A lot of folks used to go out past the canal C23 dam and use the canal berm as an impromptu backdrop for target practice.

  2. Thanks so much. Most enlightening.

    Eula R Clarke, P.A. Law Offices of Eula R. Clarke, P.A. 615 SW St. Lucie Crescent Suite 105 Stuart, Florida 34994 Phone: (772)220-3324 Fax: (772)220-1805 Email: eulaclarkelaw@yahoo.com

    1. A former co-worker of mine saw one in 2008 near her place on Hutchinson Island. She had called the police (silly woman) telling them she saw a lion! (laughing)

  3. Hi Jacqui! In the early 70’s, just about the time East Ocean Bl widening had been completed, Scotty & I saw a panther run across the road from where Ocean Palms is now to the Cedar Point condos area at around sunset. Quite a surprise! Nancy

  4. Interesting Facebook comets on this blog:

    Leigh Ann Neild Brogan My dad trapped a black panther when we were kids ….took it out to Palm City and let it go…and we had several families of foxes too….
    Yesterday at 12:34pm · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Leigh Ann Neild Brogan that is a wild story. Right here in Sewall’s Point I take it as that’s were your parents still live. Amazing. So glad they let it go!
    23 hrs · Like

    Leigh Ann Neild Brogan Oh yes…not kidding..Dr Nehme’s property housed many wonderful species at one time…and as we all know…PALM CITY was nothing but farms so perfect place to let it go. And every Sunday night was our big sit down dinner and all the left overs were put out for momma foxes and their babies to come and enjoy…VERY VERY NEAT…
    22 hrs · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch So awesome Leigh Ann Neild Brogan We are lucky to lived in such times. My mom encouraged us to have raccoon, squirrel, snake, fox,and baby bird short term pets and then we let them go or stopped feeding them. Today this would not be encouraged or even allowed probable “tampering with wild life….”
    Brian Sullivan Palm City currently has a Florida Panther on the south end of town and an escaped Ocelot. The Panther has been seen twice in the last year by people I know. His previous habitat was in Highland Reserve. They can range 50 miles in their territory.
    5 hrs · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Brian Sullivan palm city would be the best place to be in MC if one were an ocelot or Florida Panther— better than downtown Stuart anyway. Fascinating. I will look up Highland Reserve. I would so love to see a panther that’s not in a cage! Thanks for writing.
    2 hrs · Edited · Like

    Phil Heitner Great article Jacqui enjoyed reading it.

    James Hill There’s one near Indian Street Bridge on Stuart side, behind that gas station.
    September 19 at 8:33am · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch I want to see!
    September 19 at 8:34am · Like

    James Hill I was worried about him because he leapt across Indian and behind Crossings about 50 yards in front of my car. He made it, in about 3 bounds.
    September 19 at 8:36am · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Wow. Could it be a bobcat they get large too but not to 100 pounds. So glad it did not get hit. A tough world for them
    September 19 at 8:37am · Like

    James Hill There’s also been a lone flamingo flying east over our house around dusk every evening. He is very elusive and have not been able to get a photo of him yet. 100% NOT a Roseate Spoonbill
    September 19 at 8:37am · Unlike · 1

    James Hill totally not bobcat. small head, long bushy tail that swooped downward.
    September 19 at 8:38am · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch You are kidding. Wow. I hope you get a photo. Iheard they came back to Hialeigh or how ever you spell it in south florida
    September 19 at 8:38am · Like · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch That’s exciting James Hill- carry that camera!
    September 19 at 8:39am · Edited · Like · 1

    James Hill I heard that too. I hope that he doesn’t live near there, and was just migrating.
    September 19 at 8:39am · Unlike · 1

    Anita Smith We have a bobcat near my area. Guess the critters are coming out to play!
    September 19 at 8:39am · Unlike · 2

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch I love the bobcats. They seem to have left Sewall’s Point though. no more rabbits..
    September 19 at 8:40am · Like · 1

    James Hill I’ll have to just sit out one evening and keep lookout for the flamingo. He is like clockwork.
    September 19 at 8:41am · Unlike · 1

    Ed Joel I would not want to see that cat in my backyard.
    September 19 at 8:52am · Unlike · 2

    Sarah Wonnell no rabbits because they ate them – – when you have rabbits back, they are gone to another area. Have that here. I am happy when I see rabbits as I know they are hunting elsewhere – rabbits gone, they are “b a c k ” ……
    September 19 at 8:54am · Unlike · 1

    Lauren Adrian Espitia I came face to face with either a large bobcat or panther about 10 years ago in Sailfish Point. I was walking my daughter in a stroller and he walked out from behind a bush, looked at us and turned and walked toward the beach.
    September 19 at 9:00am · Unlike · 1

    Lisa Jefferson Many years ago I saw one crossing the turnpike as I was driving south near Miami.Luckily the traffic was light & it made it across.It was was big & moving fast.I could only think of a lion.It was a magic blink of the eye!
    September 19 at 9:09am · Unlike · 1

    Nicole Lebel I remember in the 80’s in Jensen Beach there was a panther roaming around the Langford property eating the peacocks. My mom was watching the main house on the property, feeding Sally’s dogs while she was away, and I remember her pulling her car up to the front door, practically on the threshold, and us flying out of the car and into the house with the feeling that he was right behind us!
    September 19 at 9:15am · Unlike · 4

    Jeanne Emerick We used to have bobcats and Panthers in Jensen near the old Winn Dixie, before they built up the white sugary sand hills, it was so nice and wild except the diamond back rattlesnakes in our yard.
    Bobcat ate our chickens.
    September 19 at 10:11am · Unlike · 1

    Jeanne Emerick Fishing was great too in those fresh water lakes.
    September 19 at 10:12am · Unlike · 1

    Nicole Lebel I also remember plaster of paris-ing, lol, a foot print of a panther that came through in the night while camping with the Girl Scouts.
    September 19 at 10:13am · Unlike · 2

    Keri West .. sharing on my Florida Nature Channel page
    September 19 at 11:14am · Unlike · 1

    Kathy Sikkema Richardson I used to see black panthers when I would go with my dad at night to spray mosquitos in ft. Pierce
    September 19 at 12:39pm · Unlike · 2

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Omg these are the most awesome comments ever! I will keep looking – especially for a black one!:)
    September 19 at 2:02pm · Like · 3

    John Mildenberger I had one cross the road in front of me while cycling early in the morning south of the power plant when we first moved here. More recently a friend had one stealing chickens in Rio.
    September 19 at 2:53pm · Unlike · 2

    Reid Friedson I walked with a mystical black panther in the glades west of Boca Raton in 1978 when I was 12 while my father watched in amazement. That black panther is still with me.
    September 19 at 3:07pm · Unlike · 3

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Wow that’ a great bicycle ride! A black panther- would stay with me too– my entire life. A gift….
    September 19 at 3:32pm · Edited · Like · 1

    Reid Friedson Seminoles say he is my animal spirit guide and it is no coincidence he was so comfortable walking with me.
    September 19 at 3:33pm · Edited · Unlike · 2

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Kathy Sikkema Richardson what a “south Florida experience .” Really cool.
    September 19 at 3:35pm · Like

    Jeanne Emerick Wow, Black Panthers…. Wonderful..
    Many Floridians, naturalists, etc. doubt their existence…you know different. Well, keep the sightings coming.
    September 19 at 5:10pm · Unlike · 1

    Jeanne Emerick Jacqui, this blog really connected people…and stirred up many recent and nearly forgotten memories, such great contacts (and some not) with nature.
    September 19 at 5:28pm · Edited · Unlike · 1

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Jeanne Emerick Thanks so much. Big cats are very fun to write about because they are so secretive but when you start sharing stories many people have witnessed them. I wrote this blog entry in March about the black bobcats of the St Lucie region and there were also lots of comments, sighting reports. Very cool.http://jacquithurlowlippisch.com/?s=black+bobcat

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch on WordPress.com
    Indian River Lagoon (by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)
    September 19 at 5:29pm · Edited · Like · 2 · Remove Preview

    Debi Potter I saw a young panther in Jensen Beach Country Club last year.
    September 20 at 7:56am · Unlike · 2

    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Debi Potter!!!!
    September 20 at 7:57am · Like · 14 hrs · Unlike · 1
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch

    1. Elizabeth Donohue lived near Sailfish Point on Hutchinson Island for about six years during 2005-2010. I was walking my dog in the summer months of 2008 and saw a huge panther with a sea otter in its mouth. My husband and I watched three sea otters play every morning while we drank our coffee. He took one of them back into the woods with him. It was the most beautiful animal I have ever seen and when he saw me he leaped so high it made me cry instantly. I knew there was no danger because he had in his mouth what he came for. The security guard at our complex told me that I was blessed to have seen him. Only a couple of people have encountered such beauty. 🐆💫

  5. Well, thank you all for your wonderful remembering of seeing the Big Cats. Now, this is very, very real. THEY ARE HERE NOW, in large numbers. I am seeing LARGE CAT tracks every time I go out in the bush. Most people do not notice much around them especially the signs on the ground, yes tracks, foot prints, and droppings. The big cats are real, and are here in Martin County in a big way, in the Easterly sections. I saw one 2 months ago just 20 feet from me near the VFW on the Conservancy land, A1A, North of Peck Lake, It was like 100 plus pounds, and it watched me go by on my bike with it’s head turning as I went by, exactly like people watch a tennis ball, on a court as it is hit. I was very concerned it was going to jump on my back for it’s evening meal. Also, I saw large tracks on the beach Southeast of the power plant. Very large tracks the size of the diameter of a tomato can as someone stated her in a previous posting. The population out near the power plant are many, but who knows, the range is 200, 300, 400, miles for a big cat. However, they do have a HOME RANGE that they frequent often, especially if food is easy and abundant, and the cover is good. In other words they will hang around and enjoy. The population Southeast of the Power Plant is enjoying one very tasty bit of food, raccoons. The tracks tell the story there in the sand. We do have a large population of Racoons, again based on the tracks in the samd. You see the wild coons eat the ghost crabs, and the Big Cat is the third party to the chase, and intersept the coon as they have attention targeted on the ghost crab.
    My concern is, has one ever attempted to enjoy a person for dinner, or breakfast or just a snack? I love riding my bike, and hiking, and just being out of doors in the open spaces Martin County presents us with. It is a wonderful way to enjoy live, I just don’t want to say hello to a hungry kitty that weighs 100 plus pounds. I think the population head count is very high, based on the tracks I am seeing, and in people populated areas, in the tracts that are like wilderness. Please be aware and never, never go up to a young PRETTY cub, or MOM will definitely cause you some upset. Just pray you never come between Mom and her young by mistake. It sure would be wonderful to know, to have, documentation, to have trail cam pictures of these wonderful creatures, in Martin County, to know where exactly to be aware. Example, 2 weeks ago I had to go to the PBI airport very early in the morning, and on my way back, like 5:30 AM, I see a lady out with a flash light doing her morning walk. That is the highlight time for the BIG CATS to catch breakfast. I know , most like rabbits and will not bother a person, or , ahhh, a mistake being near young, or a prey sound, where a child sounds like prey, etc. and breakfast is served. The highlight meal for the full grown Big Cat is deer in the early days before Europeans, and now hogs also. California has an average of 3 to 5 people killed each year by Cougar/Panthers ,like, or same, or cousins. They all make there living the same way.
    A few Northern states are plagued with deer causing carnage on the highways with the deer population up so high, and Big Cat Cougar, was mentioned as a natural reducer for the heard, and was seriously considered for introduction as a prey animal to keep the deer in check. I am still not sure how they BIG CAT will do with humans near their HOME RANGE area, also.

    1. Fascinating Jay. I saw a very large bobcat hit by a car in Indiantown but I have still never witnessed a panther in the wild. I am no expert but all I have read is that they are very weary of humans and there are no reports of attack. I think they would run to hide from you before they would jump on your back as you ride past. FWC certainly has stats. I will ask Angeline Scotten. She would know for sure.

  6. While living in Stuart in 2004, I drove up on a Florida Panther crossing Jefferson Street in the middle of the day just before SE Bedford Street in an area where the road crossed a narrow natural area. Awesome sight to see, especially in the middle of town.

  7. FP232 hit the side of my son’s truck and was flipped under the back tire. My son did not hit the panther! Please get the story straight! Thank you, Jean T. Durrance

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