I've never heard a panther cry, but my late grandmother said it's a terrifying sound, part shriek and part wail. "It makes your blood run cold," she'd whisper, fixing us with a rheumy squint. "Like hearin' a murder, way off in the woods."
The big cats whose nocturnal screams shattered my grandmother's sleep and put the outhouse off limits lived in the Alabama wilderness, where she was born and raised, but they shared the same gene pool as the Florida panthers that prowl the Everglades today. Thanks to bounty hunters, highways, and the loss of prey and habitat, panthers became extinct in Alabama-and everywhere else except for a handful of South Florida counties-by the 1950s.
The subspecies we call Florida panther is distinguished from its Western counterparts chiefly by its short body hair, long legs, and Roman nose. Adults weigh 120 pounds or more and live about 12 years. They prefer to dine on deer but will readily consume almost any small animal they can catch.
Despite decades of federal protection, the Florida panther remains one of the world's rarest mammals. Only about 80 survive. "Pureblooded" Florida panthers often suffer from heart and reproductive system defects, the result of decades of inbreeding, leading some scientists to maintain that the best way to preserve the subspecies is to hybridize them with Western cougars, enhancing the breed's genetic variability.
While panthers have long been confined to the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp, their range may be expanding, at least a little. Recently they've been sighted in the Myakka watershed-something that would surely have quickened my grandmother's pulse and sent those cries of the Alabama panthers of her childhood echoing in her memory.