East of the Mississippi River, this cat is most often called the Eastern Panther. There is much debate about the DNA distinctiveness of the animal, and whether it should simply be called a cougar, with no distinction between western and eastern. However, until the scientific community agrees on that, we will refer to the cat as the Eastern Panther
This is the most endangered cat in the world, on the brink of extinction. There are less than 100 know to exist on the North American continent, the only place they are found in the world. Eastern Panthers once roamed from eastern Canada throughout the eastern U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico except in the open plains of the corn belt. The thick woods and dense underbrush that used to be their home is now your home, your neighbor's home, shopping centers, roads, highways, schools, office buildings, businesses and ball fields. Today there is a small pocket of them in southern Florida under the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) where they are referred to as the Florida Panther. Most of the publicity about critically endangered species is devoted to exotic species on other continents, such as the critically endangered Javan Rhino, or the endangered Snow Leopard. Awareness that the Eastern Panther as critically endangered and encouraging actions to bring this cat back from the brink of extinction in the wild are two of the objectives of the Wildlife Sanctuary. Surprisingly, few people in the United States realize that such a near extinction condition exists in North America.
Eastern Panthers are smaller than their western cousins, yet the males still roam over 400 square miles and the females just under 100 square miles as their habitat. Their favorite food is the white-tailed deer. The Eastern Panther has more distinct facial colors and a smaller bone structure than Western Cougars.
The only unequivocally known population of Eastern Panthers is the critically endangered Florida Panther population. Many extinct populations, such as the Wisconsin Cougar, which died out in 1925, are also included in the subspecies.
Other names for this cat include black panther, caracajou, catamount, catawampus, cougar, Eastern Cougar, Wisconsin Cougar, Texas Cougar, deer tiger, deercat, devil cat, fire cat, Florida Panther, ghost cat, gray lion, Indian devil, king cat, Klandagi, long tail (erielhonan), mexican lion, mountain devil, mountain lion, mountain screamer, painter, panther, plain lion, puma, purple tail, Quinquajou, red tiger, silver lion, sneak cat and swamp lion. In fact, there are 57 different names for the Eastern Panther, lending to the confusion about the animal.
The Florida Panther Project is the only active repopulation program in operation anywhere in the Eastern U.S., although there are indications that the cat is attempting to re-establish itself in the Southeast. In November of 2008, a deer hunter shot and killed a panther near LaGrange, Georgia. When the results came back from genetic testing, it was proven that the animal was a Florida Panther that had migrated over 600 miles north, out of the Florida Everglades where their pocket population exists. Since the male has a range of 400 square miles, such a trek is not inconceivable. It is likely that the cats are migrating north in search of more plentiful food, since their current habitat may be nearing its carrying capacity, according to the USFW.
Over the past 60 years, there have been sporadic sightings in the East, from Maine to Florida, although most officials will claim these are captive escapees or pets that were released because they became too large to house, too expensive to feed and too dangerous to own. This is fairly unlikely. Cougars learn what prey to pursue from their mother. It is a learned behavior. Pets and cats kept in captivity have not learned to pursue any prey, so it is not likely they would survive in the wild. And, given the very large area a wild panther will roam, it should be expected that there might be sightings in the East from remnants or transients of the species. However, that hardly ensures their survival. To see how difficult it is for a captive lion to be successfully returned to the wild, please watch the movie Born Free.