First, for the the Internet haters that can’t believe that the department would take an action that would harm or kill and endangered animal, panthers are not endangered (other than the Florida panther sub-species, which this one is highly unlikely to be) Panthers are extremely common in most western states and becoming more prevalent in the midwestern states. In fact, a few states actually consider them varmints and have liberal seasons for them. They have recently turned up in our neighbor states of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, so it was just a matter of time until one ended up here.
As to the legality of the action of the officers, it is perfectly within the bounds of Kentucky statutes for conservation officers to bring under control any wild animal that is causing or may become a threat to people, pets, livestock, or other wildlife, “Bring under control” includes lethal control. That means death. It does not mean “murder” as some people like to call it. Murder is a term reserved exclusively for humans maliciously killing other humans. Given the circumstances that have been reported, the officers took the prudent option. Had they chosen differently, and the cat subsequently injured a member of the public, however remote the chance, then people would be calling for the heads of the officers for not killing it. That being said, and contrary to rumor professed on various websites, Kentucky law does protect panthers, since they are native wildlife, though extirpated for many years. That means that unless you are defending your life or property from imminent danger, a member of the general public CANNOT shoot one of these animals legally.
This particular panther could have been a released pet, or it could have migrated from the wild, midwestern population. While there are some identifiers that could point to a prior captive life (front claws and canines are often removed for the owner’s safety), we may never know where this cat came from. Until the department has examined it thoroughly, we don’t know if these indicators existed on this animal. Speculation that the cat appeared healthy and well-fed and thus was someone’s escaped or released pet, is pure bunk. In fact, the opposite is often true – captive cats released into the wild can have trouble finding and killing food and thus tend to be unthrifty and thin, whereas wild cats that are migrating or dispersing from other areas have no problem finding and killing their food. So the health of the animal is in no way a reliable indicator of its origin. Likewise, genetic tests may give a clue as to its prior status – for example, if it has genes similar to central or south american cats, it likely was a pet, since that would be an extremely unlikely dispersal distance. But if it has western genes (most likely) then we are back to where we started.
Ultimately, the issue of the cat being a pet or a wild disperser is irrelevant. While there is certainly a suitable prey base in Kentucky for these cats, and their solitary nature fits well with our available habitat, panthers will never naturally recover or be restored in Kentucky. There are too many people with too little tolerance for these large predators to allow them to recolonize and persist – despite the fact that they would cause few problems with people. Humans are not typical prey for these animals, and survival dictates that they don’t waste time and resources pursuing things they can’t eat. Have panthers killed people? Yes. But so have deer and many other wildlife species…and panthers do it with much less frequency than most of our more common species.
Finally, this isolated incident has created a lot of hoopla and angst within and beyond Kentucky’s borders. There are those who want to cry “told you so, they were always here”. They weren’t. No one living today remembers when they were here in any numbers. If they had been, hunters, trail cams, diligent naturalists and outdoors people would have documented them. Also, the lack of trust for your fish and wildlife department is disturbing. Too frequently these days, our citizens depend on authorities to protect them from threats, then quickly question the manner in which those authorities do so, and then just as quickly blame them for a miscarriage of justice. Don’t believe me? Just google CNN, law enforcement, abuse of power, police, and see what you get. My message is this – trust your fish and wildlife department to do the right thing. They are the experts. They are the reason that we have the abundant wildlife that we do. I’m sure that no employee, officer or otherwise, enjoyed performing the particular function of killing that panther. Further, they have no reason to act irresponsibly when managing our resources, and they have no reason to misinform the public that they serve. Armchair quarterbacking is counterproductive and only serves to reduce much needed support for fish and wildlife conservation.