Written by Dr. Ray Ball, Vice President of Medical Sciences & Senior Veterinarian
What has three bionic legs, leaps into tall trees, lived in ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and now runs in the wild of South Florida? The only possible answer of course is Tres, the rehabilitated Florida panther.
Tres is a male Florida panther that was hit by a car, actually we believe twice. He was found along a road with three broken legs, both back legs and his left foreleg. The FWC biologist and veterinarian rescued him and presented him to the Animal Specialty Hospital in Naples where Dr. Mark Havig made him bionic. After several hours of surgery, 6 stainless steel plates and 42 screws were placed into Tres broken limbs, he was on his way to Tampa. He was still not recovered from his surgery when I pulled him out of his travel crate and got him settled in.
Figure 1 Fractured left forelimb on Florida panther Tres and the surgical repair.
Within 24 hours he was up on his feet. Within 48 hours he was leaping. He did this for a few days then settled in. Several days later he started to eat and his recovery really began.
Taking care of wild animals, truly wild animals intended to be returned to the wild, is different than the rest of the animals at the Zoo. For the wild panthers we want to keep them away from people as much as possible, and in Tres case we really want him to stay quiet and heal. Fortunately the Katherine Starz Veterinary Hospital has just that capacity and Tres was to call this his home for the next several months. He would need a couple more surgeries to manage his fractures but he really just needed the opportunity to heal. It can be a delicate balance when to step in and intervene and when to allow an animal to take care of itself. Tres told us what he needed and when to leave him alone and we listened.
Once Tres was medically cleared by the team at ZooTampa, he was moved to White Oak Plantation in north Florida to allow him some physical therapy time in a large outdoor enclosure. He would spend a couple months here regaining the fitness he needed to better his chances at survival. The team could also make sure he did not become too accustomed to people. Having a releasable panther at ZooTampa was novel. In the past we had only managed panthers that were not able to be rehabilitated. Our approach was a little different but it made sense to us. Only time would really tell if this would work.
Figure 2 Camera trap photo showing a very healthy looking Tres prior to his release. His behavior also suggested he was ready to be released.
In February the team encompassing the FWC, White Oaks, and ZooTampa gave Tres one last exam and he was determined to be ready to release. He was fitted with his radio collar and loaded up for his journey back to south Florida. The five hour journey allowed him plenty of time to recovery from his exam and at the mid-point when I checked on him he was posed very stately in his travel crate. He was ready.
In carrying out our mission we encounter numerous events that are extremely fulfilling such as seeing a child smile as the otters play or the birth of a rare animal. But nothing is quite the same as watching a manatee swim away after weeks in the rehabilitation center and seeing an orphan bear cub run into the woods after you have taken care of it. Or seeing a Florida panther race away from you, becoming invisible in an instant. We have learned many things from taking care of Tres and seeing him back in the forest of south Florida will stand out in our memory. We wish him well. We also hope to never see him again.
Figure 3 Dr Lara Cusack from FWC releases Tres in south Florida.