Jaguarundi lurking on Florida soil?|Richard_F||09/01/04 at 03:26:23|richard_f|xx|0||Jaguarundi lurking on Florida soil?

August 29, 2004

The Pacific Northwest has Bigfoot; the western desert states have jackalopes and now Florida has its own mysterious animal that only a select few people have seen - the jaguarundi.

The jaguarundi, a member of the cat family, is native to Central America and the northern and central countries of South America and there have been rare sightings in parts of Texas and New Mexico. The cats are called "Otter Cats" in Mexico and are excellent swimmers. Adults normally weigh less than 20 pounds, but they are long cats characterized by their long tails, which can be flattened when they are upset.

However, a number of modern reports say several jaguarundis are in Florida, as descendants of a small population introduced to the area in the 1940s.

Gretchen Henne, a Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife biologist, doubts the credibility of the sightings.

She said a person can research the Florida jaguarundi on-line and several articles say there is a population of jaguarundis in Florida and the cats came from the pets that escaped back in the 1940s.

"Whether that's true or not, I don't know, but I've never found a solitary piece of evidence that there ever was jaguarundis in Florida as pets ... It doesn't exist," she said. "Even if it were true and they've been here that long, there's never been a roadkill, picture or any solid evidence that they exist here. We have had biologists go out and look for signs of them and they've never seen it."

The FWC cat biologists are convinced the jaguarundi are not here and they believe there could be Florida Panthers up in this area of the state more than jaguarundis. However, the farthest north a Florida Panther has been seen was in Hillsborough County as carcass on a highway.

Two weeks ago a Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commissioner was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as saying he had seen a jaguarundi - twice - a claim that was supported by at least two other residents who said they too had seen jaguarundis.

Full grown jagarundi weigh about 9-20 pounds and Henne said the FWC rarely gets calls about them.

"We get lots of calls about cats and usually they come in as panther calls," she said.

Karen Parker, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission public information coordinator for the North Central, which includes Columbia County, said she's received calls and e-mails about cat sightings where people don't know what the animals are. She said one woman in Perry wrote about seeing a black Florida panther.

"We've seen both bobcats and coyotes, but never this cat," the letter said.

Parker said she's gotten other calls where people have reported seeing black panthers, but there's no distinct species of wild cats called a black panther and there are no black panthers. Leopards and Jaguars are the only large cats that can be black, however, wet bobcats often appear black.

In August, another e-mail was written by an Alachua County man who reported seeing a large, tan cat, similar to a cougar, and FWC officials investigated and are in the process of checking to see if any permitted cougars have been reported missing. Officials are also looking at the possibility of installing a camera on the property.

Parker, who says it's not uncommon to get calls about big cat sightings, says she forwards the information from the calls and e-mails to the agency's non-game biologist.

"A lot of times it's just a flash and its hard to determine what they see running across the road," she said. "The more I tend to talk to Henne, the more I tend to think it's probably bobcats, which in are prevalent in the area."

Henne said she usually tells people who said they've seen a Black Florida Panther, that it wasn't a panther because they don't come in that color.

"I tell them there is another cat, called a jaguarundi, that does come in that color and that's one of the only cats that can come in that color," she said. "That doesn't mean it's here... At first I thought maybe they're here because I got enough calls about them that it started to convince me that people are seeing something, but when you go back and start looking at all the things with the bobcats, it fits in easier with something that I know is here, rather than something there has never been any sign of."

Parker said sightings are reported to the FWC's division of habitat and species conservation, which can investigate if they feel it is a legitimate call. Parker said she's only gotten three calls on sightings in the last six months, but Henne has gotten 22 calls over the same period of time.

Parker said she doesn't believe the FWC will conduct an all-out research project into finding the jaguarundi on Florida soil.

"The jaguarundi I think would be a fascinating story, but from everything I've gathered, I don't think they are here," Parker said. "The main reason I say that is because the jaguarundi is so small, from the pictures I've seen, most people would think they are regular house cats. The calls I'm getting are about big cats and the jaguarundi simply does not fit into that category."

"If they're out there, you should have had a body, so it just doesn't make sense for them to be here," Henne said. "Anything is possible, but it doesn't make sense. If somebody could show me evidence of there were jaguarundi here, they were released here - that would be a little different. But there's nothing; it doesn't exist. I've searched for days."

Henne said if someone thinks they've spotted a jaguarundi, they should take a photograph and send it to the FWC.

"If anybody manages to get a picture of what they think is a panther of whatever else... that is what I would very much like to have," she said.