The panther on loan to the Great Bend-Brit Sapugh Zoo has been moved from quarantine to a public display area, Zoo Director Scott Gregory said.
The adult male panther, named Phoenix, is on loan from Panthera Research, which is building a refuge in Texas that will eventually become the panther’s permanent home. For now, he can be found in the exhibit area across from the black bears. The zoo is open seven days a week, including holidays, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Phoenix’s quarantine was a standard safety precaution for animals coming into the zoo, Gregory said. "He is on exhibit all day now, and during colder times he has the option of staying inside to keep warm, but he really likes the snow.
"He’s been a good cat, and we hope he does well in his new exhibit," Gregory continued. "He does like to watch people, so he should be outside quite a lot on our busier days."
Zoologist W.K. Baker Jr. with Panthera Research said Phoenix was born around Aug. 1, 2000, and was rescued from the exotic pet trade later that year. The following information was written by Baker:
"Phoenix had been bred by a relatively new exotic pet breeder in west Texas and pulled from his mother at approximately 10 days of age for a transaction. He was then traded to an 18 year-old college student for a mule. Unfortunately, the young man didn’t realize that he would have to bottle-feed him every four hours around the clock. After 24 hours he soon realized that this was more than he had bargained for and took the kitten to the only veterinary clinic in that part of Texas.
"The young man simply walked into their clinic and dropped him on the counter, told his story, and turned and left. The staff took the blue-eyed kitten under their care and researched through their professional contacts the best diet and appropriate husbandry for him. He received the best possible care. However, the staff also realized through their research that he would grow and be quickly beyond their abilities to care for and safely house him."
The staff had no luck finding a zoo or refuge that could take the panther off their hands. All had committed their space to cats in species survival programs with known genetics, Baker said. Eventually, the vet technicians called Baker, who was then the director of the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas.
"The Frank Buck Zoo received approximately 30 – 40 calls per week from private owners looking to place their animals. The vast majority of these calls were simply referred or refused. ... After a few minutes of phone conversation it became clear that this cat was definitely an exception to the rule. He had no physical, neurological, or psychological defects. In addition, his veterinary care and nutrition was excellent."
Baker was their last chance. If the veterinary technician couldn’t find a home for the panther, he was to be euthanized that afternoon.
"The veterinary technician asked if the zoo wouldn’t take him, would I personally take him under my permits, since the carnivore exhibits at the zoo wouldn’t be ready for six months? After a few minutes of thought, I said yes and made arrangements for shipment and transfer of ownership. He arrived at 4 weeks of age and I hand raised him under my permits and licenses.
"For the past 11 years, Phoenix has been a fixture in my life. He has received extensive training through a combination of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning techniques in both free-contact and protected contact environments. His intelligence has enabled us to conduct research into felid behavior, operant conditioning training, environmental enrichment, as well as into crisis management and zoological safety, which has been published in scientific journals. It has also allowed us to promote public awareness of the problems associated with the exotic pet trade in the United States. ...
"We are thrilled that Phoenix is on loan to the Great Bend zoo and in the hands of such a talented staff," Baker said. "In the short time we were in town, we quickly learned that Great Bend is a truly warm and friendly community and know he will be welcome there."