This past weekend, I made a trip from my north Florida home in Tallahassee to central Florida to visit family for several days. Sunday was my travel day going south. While there are still many large areas of undeveloped land in north Florida, central Florida has experienced massive development in recent years. In that context, what happened on Sunday was remarkable.
There are two main routes to travel from Tallahassee to central Florida. I can travel nearly all the way via interstates until just south of Ocala, or I can take a slower and more scenic alternative route. The alternative route is the one that I prefer which takes US Highway 27 / Alternate 27 to Ocala and then Interstate 75 to the Florida Turnpike and then finally I get back on US 27 South to my family.
The northern segment of this route follows through pine forests and cattle ranches until I reach the halfway point which is Chiefland. At Chiefland, I pick up Alternate 27 that runs through the beautiful horse country until I reach Ocala. Many of the Florida thoroughbred farms are in this area of Florida, as well as other horse farms. It is very picturesque seeing all the graceful thoroughbreds or Arabian horses in their immaculately maintained and beautifully fenced pastures along the way. Sunday was a gorgeous day and I passed a huge equestrian competition outside Ocala. Other than seeing the horses and riders for that competition, my trip had been very uneventful.
After passing through horse country, I reached Ocala where I picked up Interstate 75. Riding along the 26 mile segment of Interstate 75 between Ocala and the Florida Turnpike is always my least favorite part of this trip. This part of the interstate is always crowded and everyone drives well above the speed limit so I always feel on edge. The traffic was heavier than normal due to the influx of northern tourists vacationing here during spring break, so I was relieved to get on the Turnpike which seems sane compared to the interstate.
I only spend about 14 miles on the Turnpike, after which I have about 50 miles or so of what used to be my favorite part of the trip many years ago. This segment was once nearly solid with the beautiful citrus groves all the way from Minneola to Haines City. This region forms the spine of Florida and is very hilly with many small lakes interspersed among the hills. I always looked forward to seeing the groves. There is nothing so beautiful as the deep dark green of the citrus groves against the bright blue sky. But the groves are now all gone and have been replaced by development after development of cookie cutter houses. It has become nowhere or anywhere USA. A side effect of this massive amount of development has been a huge increase in traffic on US 27 which has been widened to six lanes but still is congested.
These last 50 miles which were once my favorite part of the trip have become the most maddening or frustrating part of the trip. What was once a scenic and almost pastoral trip has become stop and go with traffic light after traffic light congestion. Even though the speed limit is 55 mph, no one could ever reach that speed.
So for that last 50 miles or so, I persisted through stop light after stop light until I reached Haines City which is the last major town before I reach my destination. From Haines City to my destination is less than ten miles to where I turn off at Dundee. This area of Florida is where the lakes take over from the hills. As I headed south from Haines City, it was about one in the afternoon and there was heavy traffic on the six lanes of US 27.
I was about halfway between Haines City and Dundee, when suddenly a large cat, a very long, low cat, ran across six lanes of traffic from east to west right in front of my car and several other cars. When I say large, I am talking about five feet long with a tail equally as long as its body. It was a beautiful buff color with short ears and a very long tail. I thought that the only thing it could be was a Florida panther. The animal I saw did not have a radio tracking collar on it.
Since then, I have looked up information on the Florida panther. Everything I have read describes the animal I saw except for one thing. The cat I saw had a white tip on its tail and the pictures of the adult Florida panther show a black tip on the tail. Because of the white tip on the tail, I am guessing that perhaps the cat I saw may have been a juvenile. All I know is that I saw a magnificent and beautiful animal.
Although these panthers once roamed throughout the southeastern United States, their range is now confined to parts of Florida, mostly the southern portion of the state in and around the Everglades. Here is some more information about the endangered Florida panther. Seeing one of these cats much further north in Polk County was simply amazing.
I reported my sighting to the Florida Wildlife Alert at (888) 404 3922. The person who took my call said that they will send one of their biologists to investigate any sightings and hopefully they will be able to find and track this young panther. I feel very privileged to have been able to see one of these beautiful Florida panthers.