Endangered Florida panthers are mysteriously struggling to walk, and wildlife officials don't know why

By Sophie Lewis

/ CBS News

Florida panthers develop mysterious disorder

Several panthers and bobcats in Florida appear to have developed a mysterious disorder, and it's catching the attention of wildlife officials. The animals have been spotted struggling to walk properly and are having difficulty using their hind legs, often stumbling and falling down. Some believe they may have been poisoned.

"All the affected animals have exhibited some degree of walking abnormally or difficulty coordinating their back legs," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said in a statement Monday.

The FWC confirmed one panther and one bobcat suffered from neurological damage. Trail camera footage also captured eight panthers and one bobcat struggling with the condition with varying degrees of severity. It seems to affect kittens hardest.

Surveillance footage from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission show the animals struggling to walk. FWC

Affected cats can be seen on video from several locations, including Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties. One panther was photographed that could be affected in Charlotte County, but the disorder appears to be localized.

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"While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue," said Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined."

The FWC is testing for potential toxins — including rat pesticide — infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies.

The agency is also asking local residents to share any personal surveillance footage that shows the struggling animals. Gathering more photos and video evidence will help researchers to further analyze and confirm the condition.

Native Florida panthers are an endangered species, so it is critical that officials determine the cause of the mysterious disorder and minimize its impact on the population.

Panthers' territory once covered the entire Southeast, but their current habitat is limited mainly to southwest Florida. Only about 120 to 230 adult panthers are left in the state, and sightings are rare.

First published on August 21, 2019 / 10:28 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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