The sandy-colored, 120-pound panther cautiously poked its head out of the crate that wildlife officials drove Wednesday from northeast Florida to Palm Beach County, then it trotted out onto a gravel road in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area.
It built up speed with longer and longer strides, sprinting several hundred yards before veering off into the brush and disappearing.
"To see him run straight like that for such a distance and running free off into the woods makes everything worthwhile," said Dave Onorato, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientist who opened the panther's crate.
The 2-year-old male panther and its sister were rescued by wildlife officials in September 2011 in Collier County after their mother was found dead. They have been raised at the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee since they were 5 months old.
Only around 160 Florida panthers remain, and it's rare for the big cats to be cared for in captivity and then released. Only about 15 kittens or injured adult panthers have been treated at the center and released since it began working with the cats in 1986.
"Having him in the wild with the potential to contribute to reproductive output really is what we need for panther recovery," Onorato said.
The rescued siblings were raised in a series of increasingly larger pens fenced into the forest surrounding the center in northeast Florida. Human interaction was extremely limited, leaving the panthers to hone their instincts hunting rabbits, armadillos and deer released into their pens. Once they got big enough to take down larger animals, they were deemed ready to try their luck in the wild.
The female panther was released in Collier County in February. Like her brother, she's wearing a collar that allows researchers to track her movements.
The measure of success for her release will be whether she produces a litter of kittens, Onorato said.
The bar is lower for the male panther: surviving at least a year in a competitive landscape. Young males can be attacked and killed by larger, older panthers securing their territory. The home range of a male panther is about 200 square miles, an area the size of Disney World.
Instead of releasing the male into the panther's core population in southwest Florida, researchers took him to Palm Beach County to the eastern edge of known panther breeding grounds.
"By putting him in areas where we suspect there's low numbers of male panthers, we're trying to give him a little bit of a head start," Onorato said.
Panthers once roamed the entire southeastern U.S., but development has limited their habitat mostly to southwest Florida.
Vehicle strikes are blamed for most of the more than two dozen panther deaths reported last year. Seven panther deaths have been recorded so far this year, including five caused by vehicles.