The dogs had been barking for a while. What was wrong with them? At first, Phil Hendra thought little of it and went back to his family dinner. However, when his son pointed out something unusual on the porch, he realized what the source of the disturbance was – and how much danger they could be in.
The day had begun much more languidly for the Hendras, who were family visiting relatives in East Fort Myers, Florida. Phil called in to see his parents, Richard and Teddi, at their home in Lee County. Phil’s three children, Casey, Zachary and Phillip Jr., were also along for the visit.
It was March 18, 2016, and the family were enjoying a meal together when something disturbed them. It was actually ten-year-old Phil Jr. who spotted the intruder first, and he subsequently told the others that he’d seen a “funny dog” through the window.
Casey, 12, and six-year-old Zachary joined their brother by the window, and they too saw the intruder. There, just outside the Hendra house, the uninvited guest was relaxing and enjoying the sun. At first, it was oblivious to its growing audience, and if they made the creature uncomfortable, it gave no indication.
When the adult Hendras went to investigate the “funny dog,” they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It wasn’t a dog at all, in fact, but something much more unusual. Indeed, it left the family stunned – especially since they could see it at such close proximity.
The animal wasn’t an unusual dog but a large cat known as a Florida panther. Like other large cats they can be dangerous, but initially this one didn’t worry the amazed family. “We were not scared at all,” Phil told the NY Daily News.
“The panther looked so calm and comfortable, we were too,” he continued. “It laid down like a regular house cat.” Indeed, the panther was so relaxed that it had made itself right at home on the Hendras’ porch.
“[It was] beautiful [and] looked very healthy,” Phil later told Sky News. What’s more, the cat wasn’t even fazed when he got his camera out and started photographing it. The panther did, however, turn to face its stunned observers, although it didn’t show a hint of fear at their presence.
“We were shocked because it didn’t run away when it looked at us,” Phil said in an interview with the Naples Daily News. “We were able to watch it from inside and take photos.” The panther subsequently stayed on the porch for around 20 minutes before making its exit.
“It… got back up, strolled to the side of the deck, looked back at us a few times and walked away,” Phil told the NY Daily News. Moreover, then the panther proved just how stealthy cats can be. Yes, it simply vanished as if it had never been there at all.
The departure was so sudden that it made the family realize just how close they had been to the predator. “We were then pretty scared to go outside,” Phil admitted. That was the last they saw of the panther, although their encounter with it was an unforgettable experience.
Interestingly, while the cat observed by the Hendras is called a Florida panther, it’s actually a type of cougar. Named the state animal in 1982, this beautiful creature starts its life with blue eyes and a spotted coat – a pattern that helps to hide the helpless cubs from predators.
As they age, though, their appearance changes. Their eyes subsequently turn a stunning gold and their coat becomes cream with a lighter stomach. They habitually stalk the area’s swamps and woods, where the trees provide ample camouflage, which is a key reason why observing one is such a rare event.
They are flexible hunters, however, and will move to other territory if prey becomes scarce. It would probably come as no surprise to the Hendras that, like most cats, Florida panthers are ambush predators. Consequently, they use stealth when attacking their prey.
This hunting technique allows the cats to kill fast-moving prey such as water birds and rodents before they escape. Moreover, panthers will also attack larger prey including wild pigs and deer. One of their potential targets, though, is also the panther’s only natural predator.
Yes, that would be Florida’s other large predator: the American alligator. While the Florida panther sometimes kills alligators, it’s a two-way street. However, humans pose the biggest threat to panthers – which is the other big reason why seeing one is so rare.
The Florida panther is an endangered species, and consequently there are laws protecting it from human poaching. Yet despite this, there are still hunters out there who will shoot them with no apparent concern for the legislation. Not all panther deaths caused by humans are intentional, though.
While some panthers are killed in traffic accidents, the largest cause of death is the destruction of their habitat. Deforestation and the construction of roads through panther-inhabited forests has led to a decline in numbers. Moreover, this process has left the animals with a shallower gene pool and many health problems.
As a result, scientists and animal conservationists are currently working to keep the Florida panther species alive via breeding programs. Hopefully, their efforts will prove successful and in the future we will see these magnificent animals flourish. The Hendras certainly treasure their close encounter with the panther.
“Nothing compares to this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Phil told the Naples Daily News. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks anyone seeing a panther to report the sighting on its official website. Doing so will help conservation efforts, and you’ll be doing your bit to help save a species.