Early one morning in late May I stood at the rear of a spotless large animal examination room in the veterinary medicine center at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, watching a young male Florida panther undergo his final check-up before being released to the wild. The big cat lay supine on a stainless steel table under bright overhead lights, wearing an oxygen and anesthesia mask. He was absolutely beautiful even in his sedated state, lanky and long, all muscle and sinew, the distilled essence of wildness. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and I started to feel a bit self-conscious, the way you do when someone especially handsome or beautiful walks into a room and draws your gaze.
A team of veterinarians, technicians, and wildlife biologists moved deliberately and unhurriedly around the table, going about their business, running down their checklist. The panther had been at the zoo for a few weeks, rehabilitating after having been identified as a “problem animal” and captured and removed from his range. His crime, it seemed, was hunting and eating small animals. Unfortunately for him, the animals in question were household pets. He’d been found guilty of being a panther. A zoo staffer referred to him, with evident affection, as “Bad Boy.”
As the focus of zoos and aquariums has shifted from entertainment to conservation, more and more of their efforts and resources are devoted to trying to ensure the survival of wild populations. But what do we mean by wild? The New York Zoological Society’s Bill Conway used to say, “There are no wild populations anymore, only managed populations of different sizes.” Our human footprint on the planet shows no signs of shrinking, and wildlife corridors, even where they exist, are only a partial solution at best. So what happens if we’re successful? Where will the wolves and grizzlies and giant pandas live? Where will the migrating songbirds and waterfowl rest and feed? Where will the salmon spawn, monarch butterflies winter over, box turtles nest?
Bad Boy was loaded into the back of a truck, headed deep into the heart of Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge, where his handlers would crack open his transport crate and send him on his way. Where (hopefully) he’ll find fewer poodles to snack on. Where he might have a chance to be wild.
Good luck buddy. Stay safe.