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…
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.
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.
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….” 🙂
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)