YULEE, Fla. — The two kittens who now call White Oak Conservation in Yulee home are no ordinary felines.
Cypress and Pepper are orphaned Florida panther kittens, staff hopes they will play a critical role in educating people in the community about their endangered species.
Both brothers are seven-months-old. They came to the White Oak Conservation last month from the Tampa Zoo.
"It's been great," said Brandon Speeg, Director of Conservation at White Oak. "They like to play on their rock structures, keepers are taking care of them. They've had a great first week."
State wildlife officials had been monitoring the mother of the two kittens as she suffered from a neurological disorder that researchers are still investigating. Her kittens were taken in around early July when they were just two-weeks-old to be raised by specialists.
Both kittens have been tested and will continue to be monitored for the disorder, which is one additional threat to the existence of the Florida panther.
Researchers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission believe there are only 120 to 230 Florida panthers left in the wild, with much of their natural habitat lost to development. Collisions with vehicles are another major threat to panthers.
Speeg and other staff at White Oak hope the kittens will be ambassadors of education for visitors, teaching about the endangered status of Florida's state animal.
"They play a really important role in Florida ecology," Speeg said. "It's like playing Jenga. If you remove something, they all support each other and you aren't sure what impact that's going to have."
White Oak has a rehabilitation and release program for Florida panthers. It is a partnership with the FWC and other wildlife officials to heal injured panthers, Speeg said.
"White Oak is the only place in the world that rehabilitates injured Florida Panthers for release into the wild," he said. "When we do that we usually get injured Florida Panthers that have been hit by a car, and if they can save them they bring them to us."
White Oak is made up of more than 17,000 acres along the St. Mary's River near the Yulee and Georgia border. The wildlife conservation facility is host to animals like rhinoceros, cheetahs and antelopes.
The facility is open to visitors through conservation tours that can be booked in advance. Their schedule is below:
Schedule: Wednesday, Friday (Must book in advance.) **
- 10:00 a.m October – May
- 9:00 a.m. June – September
You can read about the Florida panther and the ways the FWC is working to support the population here.
White Oak provided a number of pictures of the young panthers, which can be viewed below.