A state wildlife official opposed plans to alter protections for the Florida panther, saying there was no pressing reason to fear the big cats.
On Sept. 2, 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considered a policy proposal that critics said would have undercut efforts to expand the population.
Opponents said the proposal favored ranchers, who have complained about panthers eating livestock and potentially threatening family members. Commissioner "Alligator" Ron Bergeron said he’d never had reason to be afraid of a panther.
"I’ve been within three yards of panthers, multiple times," said Bergeron, a Broward County paving contractor who has been a commissioner since 2007. "There has never been a panther attack in the history of Florida." (Watch his comments here, at the 3:10 mark.)
The commission voted 4-1 to approve the proposal, with Bergeron casting the lone vote against it. The group agreed to change the plan the next day, adding language Bergeron wanted to clarify the state would continue working with the federal government using "available staff and budgetary resources." The overall proposal still said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and not the state, will take the lead on efforts to grow the panther population in central and north Florida.
We got to wondering, was he right about the felines never attacking a person? Well, none that anyone can prove.
Florida panthers are a subspecies of cougar that once roamed across the state. A male panther requires about 200 miles of open territory to thrive, so human expansion and development in Florida devastated the cat population.
Since panthers historically prey on white-tailed deer and other animals, livestock often are a substitute. Ranchers would routinely shoot the cats until the animals became protected from hunting in 1958. The federal government declared panthers an endangered species in 1967, and the state did the same in 1973. By then there were as few as 20 to 30 panthers left.
They’ve rebounded since then to between 100 and 180, but that doesn’t mean everything is great. A record 30 cats were killed in 2014, most by cars in Collier and Hendry counties. The panthers also had killed a record number of livestock and pets that year.
While farm animals fare poorly when panthers are about, the cats usually give humans a wide berth. A Conservation Commission spokeswoman backed up Bergeron, confirming to PolitiFact Florida that in modern times, there had never been a verified panther attack on a human in the state. That’s the wide consensus, and is a part of the agency’s website and literature — even in a handout that says what to do to if a panther attacks.
We should note there have been cougar (or puma, or mountain lion, or whatever you want to call them) attacks on people in other parts of the country. For example, a 35-year-old man was killed by a mountain lion while working on his bicycle in a wilderness park in Orange County, Calif., in 2004. The same cat attacked and injured a 30-year-old woman biking in the same area later that day. In 2008, a mountain lion killed a 55-year-old man close to his home near Pinos Altos, N.M.
University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Madan Oli had not heard of any panther ever attacking anyone in Florida.
"I am not aware of any documented/verified case of a Florida panther attacking humans," Oli said in an email. "I think one can safely say that such an attack has not happened in this century, but I cannot say when the last attack – if it ever happened – took place."
The part about verifying an attack is what makes the claim tricky. Even an attack near Lake Kissimmee in 2014 couldn’t be verified, because the alleged victim waited three weeks to report it.
Gary Mormino, professor emeritus at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg Florida Studies program, said word of panther attacks used to routinely fill the newspapers.
One particularly harrowing account from 1899 said a man named F.D. Biggs was on a picnic with his wife and 2-year-old when a "big catamount," a common alternative description for panthers, attacked the child.
"The cat bit Mr. Smith terribly on the arm, and, fastening its claws in his clothing, tore his coat and shirt almost completely from his body," the article read. Biggs allegedly choked the animal to death and displayed its body in his Thonotosassa store.
Mormino’s research showed that accounts of attacks appeared in the media up through the 1960s, in local papers and the New York Times. Whether they are reliable is a different question.
"I am struck as to how many late 19th- and early 20th-century century stories involve panther attacks and humans," Mormino told PolitiFact Florida. "And I am sure these figures from the past who claimed to have been attacked by panthers were speaking the truth, for them. As to the scientific truth, I simply do not know and yield to the experts."
Bergeron said, "There has never been a panther attack in the history of Florida."
While that’s the official stance of the state’s fish and wildlife agency, saying "never" is perhaps overstating the case a bit. There historically have been accounts of people tangling with the big cats. But many of those stories come from newspaper articles that date back a century or more.
Wildlife experts agree that in modern times, there have been no verified panther attacks on a person in Florida. Bergeron would have been better served if he had used the words "verified panther attack."
We rate his statement Mostly True.