The history of the Florida panther, a symbol of reverence and revulsion

“Hailed as an iconic conservation success story, the Florida panther has a complex, little-known history.” See full article by Douglas Main, with photographs by Carlton Ward, Jr. at National Geographic.

One of the most important prehistoric Native American artworks depicts a Florida panther. Known as the Key Marco cat, this six-inch-high figurine has a cat’s head and the body of a kneeling human.

Archeologist Frank Cushing, who led an 1896 expedition that unearthed it from peaty muck in Marco Island, south of Naples, called it the “mountain lion god.” He praised it as being “equal in all ways to any [artifact] from Egypt or Assyria.”

It was carved by Calusa or Muspa people sometime between 500 and 1,500 years ago, made of native hardwood, finely featured, and highly polished. When I saw it at the Marco Island Historical Museum just before the COVID pandemic began in March 2020, I was genuinely awestruck. It was crafted with extreme skill and reverence—and leaves a lasting impression.

This piece of art reminds us that the Florida panther’s story, and its relationship to humans, are complex and mysterious. Here is some of that tale.

Confusion and fear

Before Europeans arrived, mountain lions were found throughout most of North America. Over time, the animals were hunted and trapped widely; they eventually were almost eliminated from the eastern half of the United States. But a tiny population of Florida panthers, a type of mountain lion, held out in the swamps and forests in the southwestern part of the state.

European settlers greatly feared and reviled these cats, and were generally confused about what exactly they were; early accounts referred to them as “tygers,” lions, and leopards. They were eventually classified as unique New World cats, and referred to by many names, including pumas, cougars, catamounts, panthers, mountain lions, and more. Naturalists proposed that there were many different subspecies, a view that held sway until late in the 1900s. Now, all mountain lions and pumas throughout their range are thought to be the same species. [. . .]

Deep reverence

Native American cultures in the Southeast and beyond always felt much differently, considering the cats creatures of great spiritual importance and power.

“This is an animal of extreme significance,” Schneider says. “There’s a deep reverence for the panther.”

Native writer Betty Mae Jumper, in “Legends of the Seminoles,” tells the story of how the panther was the first creature to walk the Earth, following the wishes of the Creator. The cats were afforded special powers and secrets that could be shared with others, and bestowed a level of respect comparable to that given to eagles by other tribes.

One Cherokee story also casts the panther in a heroic light, as relayed by the scholar Ryan Wheeler: “When the Earth was first made the animals and plants were advised to stay awake for seven days; among the animals, only the owl and the panther and a few others were able to stay awake—and to these were given the ability to see at night and [hunt].”

In Seminole and Miccosukee culture, the panther is the namesake for a tribal clan—the panther clan—to which medicine men have historically belonged. [. . .]

For full article, see  

[Photo by Carlton Ward: Trailed by her two cubs, a female panther strides through a forested trail on Babcock Ranch State Preserve east of Fort Myers, Florida. She is the first female panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973. ]​

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