Is there a Florida panther roaming in the woods west of Apalachicola?


Neighbors think there just might be, including a trained marine biologist who is pretty sure of it.


Investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission respectfully disagree.


Here’s what we know, and don’t know, so far.


Last month, Cierra Richards and her husband Christopher, who live out on Bay City Road, had a strange encounter,


Their daughter’s therapy dog, a Chihuahua, went missing, and so did some chickens and goats, and they wondered what was up.


"My husband was outside and the little dog was barking," said Cierra. "And when he yelled his name he heard him screaming. He couldn’t find him but he smelled a horrible smell."


An FWC officer came by the house, and told her he thought it might be a panther. One clue that it was not a coyote, she said, was that there was no trace of the little dog.


"A panther doesn’t drop its prey, and we never found the dog’s body," Cierra said. "Our dogs got killed by something."


She and husband put up a trail camera, as did another neighbor, and both managed to capture some images, although not as sharp and clear as they hoped.


"You could see an animal going through the trail. That’s when we caught the ‘panther,’" Cierra said.


Another neighbor who lives two houses away, and who has spent 46 years as a marine researcher, including a stint as an estuarine taxonomist working for Dr. Skip Livingston, said he’s convinced by the evidence it’s a panther.


"There have been Florida panthers in Apalachicola my whole life," said Bob Howell, 65, who has heard secondhand that whatever animal it is, it’s already taken the lives of 10 ducks, one dog and two Shetland ponies.


"Local field people believe they do exist here," he said. "The Panama City biologist doesn’t believe me."


Here’s what FWC has to say, after their people reviewed the images from the two trail cameras and weighed the evidence.


"Our panther team determined it is a domestic cat," said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for FWC’s division of habitat and species conservation. "They said other pictures are too poor for identification but we can rule out panther based on the small sizes of the animals in the photos. They determined that although they could not tell the type of animal, it was too small to be a panther.


"We have no verified records, from the 1970s on, of any panthers in the Panhandle," she said. "However, it is not uncommon to find male panthers throughout the Florida peninsula, and one male ventured into western Georgia where he was shot and killed in 2008."


Segelson estimated the feline in the photos weighed roughly 10 pounds, while Howell is convinced the animal shown is over 90 pounds.


Male panthers weigh from 100 to 160 pounds, while females are smaller, from 70 to 100 pounds. Panthers vary in height at the shoulder from 24 to 28 inches, and measure from 6 to 7.2 feet from nose to tip of the tail.


A subspecies of Puma concolor (also known as mountain lion, cougar, or puma), the Florida panther is the only known breeding population of puma in the eastern United States. In 1967, the Department of the Interior listed the Florida panther as an endangered subspecies, and since then federal and state agencies and private partners have made progress towards achieving recovery.


Under the current Recovery Plan, established in 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider delisting the panther when three populations of at least 240 individuals each (excluding dependent-aged kittens) have been established, and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured in the long-term.


These recovery goals cannot be met without establishing additional populations outside of southern Florida, requiring support from private landowners.


An adult Florida panther is unspotted and typically tan in overall coloration, but may be darker brown to rust-colored along the midline of the back. The underside is dull white or buff-colored.


Whereas the tip of the tail, back of the ears, and sides of the muzzle are blackish, there has never been a melanistic (black) puma documented in North or South America.


Florida panther kittens are gray with dark brown or blackish spots and five bands around the tail. The spots, which help to camouflage them better from potential predators, gradually fade as the kittens grow older and are almost unnoticeable by the time they are six months old.


Panthers are wide-ranging, secretive, and occur at low densities. They require large, contiguous areas of suitable habitat to meet their social, reproductive, and energetic needs. Panther habitat selection is related to prey availability, which means they select habitats that make prey vulnerable to stalking and capturing. Dense understory vegetation provides some of the most important feeding, resting, and denning cover for panthers.


Telemetry monitoring and ground tracking indicate panthers select forested habitats, marsh shrub swamps, and prairie grasslands with agricultural lands and other habitat types used in proportion to their availability.


Florida panthers are carnivores, primarily eating white-tailed deer and wild hogs, but smaller mammals such as raccoons, armadillos, and rabbits are also an important part of their diet. Panthers are opportunistic predators and unfortunately they will also prey upon unsecured livestock and pets.


Historically, this subspecies occurred throughout the southeastern United States from Arkansas and Louisiana eastward across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and parts of South Carolina. Today, the panther is presently restricted to less than 5 percent of its historic range in a single breeding population in southern Florida.


The panther population size within the occupied breeding range south of Caloosahatchee River has increased from approximately 20 in the early 1970s to an upper bound of approximately 230 adult and sub-adult panthers in 2015. The panther continues to face numerous threats due to an increasing human population and development in panther habitat that negatively impacts recovery.