Meet the Phantom Feline

The elusive jaguarundi roams the forests and shrublands of Central and South America, but its Florida connection is an enduring mystery

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Jaguarundi, herpailurus yaguarondi, Adult staThe elusive jaguarundi may be mistaken for a juvenile Florida panthernding on Branch
The elusive jaguarundi may be mistaken for a juvenile Florida panther.

From the rusty-spotted cat of Sri Lanka, which can weigh little more than 2 pounds, to the black-footed cat of the deserts of South Africa, which can obtain water during dry periods by licking the dew from vegetation, there is more to the world of wild cats than lions and tigers. The small species of wild cats are little known compared to their large and dramatic relatives. Furthermore, these smaller species often have coloring and patterns to their fur that allow them to blend in easily with their surroundings. Such camouflage, along with their diminutive size, can make them easy to overlook—even if one of them is right nearby.

And that may be the case with a small wild cat that some observers believe is found in our area. When it comes to Florida wild cats, we all know about the great Florida panther and the easily recognizable bobcat. But have you ever heard of the jaguarundi?

The jaguarundi is small, sleek feline that can weigh approximately 8 to 15 pounds. It has a long, straight tail and thus could be mistaken for a juvenile Florida panther. There are two different color “morphs” to the species; a jaguarundi’s coat can be either charcoal gray or a rusty, reddish-brown. The coat can have beautiful mottling and color variations, but it does not have a pattern such as spots or stripes.

Although their name might suggest that they resemble jaguars, this is really not the case; they do not have flamboyant markings or color (although jaguarundi kittens do have spots). Because of their sleek build, long tails, and head shape, jaguarundis are sometimes called “otter cats.” As members of the cat family, they certainly have no relationship with otters; but if you caught a brief glimpse of one in the wild, it might be possible to mistake it for an otter. Indeed, “juvenile Florida panther” and “otter” are the usual suspects in misidentification.

The jaguarundi is native to South and Central America. It is not an officially recognized species in Florida; neither the Florida Department of Environmental Protection nor Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission consider the jaguarundi to be an animal found in our state. However, eyewitness reports of jaguarundi sightings have led some observers to believe there is at least a small population of these cats in the wilds of Florida. The jaguarundi is therefore one of Florida’s great nature mysteries.

The park manager of Sebastian Inlet State Park at the time of this writing, Jennifer Roberts, says that there is no physical or photographic evidence of jaguarundi in our area, or indeed in Florida. “Going back through 80-plus years of data, there are no photos,” she points out. Photographic or physical evidence would be needed in order for the jaguarundi to be classified as a species found in Florida. “They’re extremely elusive,” so if they do exist in Florida, it’s hard to say where, she explains. She adds, however, “People would love to hear more. I would love to hear more!”

Two jaguarundis are in residence at Bear Creek Feline Center in Panama City, where they can be viewed by appointment only. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark
Two jaguarundis are in residence at Bear Creek Feline Center in Panama City, where they can be viewed by appointment only. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

One enthusiast for the jaguarundi is Adrienne “Addy” Finegan, a park services specialist at Sebastian Inlet State Park. As a “resident ranger” who lives on park property, Finegan reports that she has seen jaguarundis near her home. “I’ve seen both the tan morph and the gray morph,” she says.

One sighting took place on March 23, 2021. A jaguarundi with the tan or brown coloring “ran across the street right in front of my car.” On another occasion, over 10 years ago, she recalls, “I looked out of my kitchen window and there was one right there.”

The park’s Hammock Trail may also be a haunt of jaguarundi; Finegan believes that Florida panther sightings reported there by volunteers may actually be misidentifications of the jaguarundi. “I’ve seen them crossing a highway or on the north trail.”

Each time she has seen a jaguarundi, the animal is alone. Like most wild cats, with the exception of lions, they are solitary creatures. Finegan notes that the jaguarundis can be “aquatic cats—so they’re very comfortable here, as estuarine feeders.” (In that respect, they do resemble jaguars, despite the lack of physical similarity). Jaguarundis eat fish as well as small mammals and birds; to catch birds, they leap into the air. In their native habitats of South and Central America, they seem to be able to adapt to a wide variety of environments, from forest to scrubland to savanna. Sebastian Inlet State Park could certainly be a rich feeding ground for them.

Currently, the jaguarundi “is not listed as a species found here at the park because we have no photographic evidence, and no tracks,” notes Finegan, who has tried to find such definitive evidence by setting up a trail camera shortly after a sighting. However, she says wryly, “All I got was footage of me setting up a trail camera!”

Finegan explains that this situation underscores the role citizen scientists can play in the study of wildlife. Hikers, kayakers, boaters—anyone who enjoys the outdoors and has a camera—can make a contribution. “People underestimate the role they play, but there’s a lot of power in citizen science,” Finegan says. Reports and photos can be shared with local state parks, including Sebastian Inlet, or with FWC—“not their emergency number, though,” she cautions. Since cell phones often record the GPS coordinates where a photo was taken, anyone who is out for a hike and is fortunate enough to get a clear picture of a jaguarundi might be able to play a significant role in providing evidence that the species is found in Florida.

For her part, Finegan loves the jaguarundi, in part because of the air of mystery that surrounds the species. “The elusive jaguarundi—one of my favorite animals!” she proclaims.

Mike Moreno, who has been with Sebastian Inlet State Park park for over 30 years, also recalls a jaguarundi sighting. One evening around sunset, he was working late when he saw an animal nearby. “I saw it from the corner of my eye. I turned around and looked, and I saw a cat with a long, curved tail. He stopped and I stopped, and we looked at each other for maybe 20 seconds.” Then the wild cat turned and left—“trotting, not running.” It walked through the picnic area and then out of sight.

The small size and long tail helped Moreno identify it as a jaguarundi. As for the color morph, he could see that it was a relatively dark color, but in the evening light, it was hard to determine the specific hue. Moreno regrets his inability to get a picture; at first he froze, and then the animal vanished into the shadows while he was reaching for his phone. Of trying to photograph a jaguarundi, he quipped, “It’s like they know it and take off!”

Moreno’s jaguarundi sighting was 10 years ago, but he says that a fisherman he considers reliable described seeing one in the area quite recently. In these reports as well as Finegan’s, only one jaguarundi is seen at any one time. Moreno believes these individuals have simply been passing through the area. “I don’t think there’s any population of jaguarundis here,” he says. Instead, his theory is that the local sightings are of wandering jaguarundis who are “just feeding and then taking off.”

Nevertheless, that glimpse from a decade ago is something he will always remember. “I see bobcats in my backyard all the time, but the jaguarundi is very different.” In addition to their long tails, they have, he relates, a noteworthy grace that helps them keep their movements quiet. “They are very poised when they walk—you don’t even hear a sound. I am fascinated by this cat.”

Moreno sums up his experience: “It was amazing, and I always keep my eyes open to see if I can spot one again. “One day,” he laughs, “I will sneak up on one and take some pictures!”

What if he, or someone else, managed to do so? What effect would photographic or physical proof of a jaguarundi presence in Florida have? It would certainly catch the attention of researchers, and it would likely lead to further studies of the creature. This is an exciting prospect for Florida nature enthusiasts. As with many great mysteries, though, even a solution would raise other questions.

Each jaguarundi exhibits one of two color morphs the gray or the tan
Each jaguarundi exhibits one of two color morphs the gray or the tan.

Since the jaguarundi is native to South and Central America, the mystery is not only whether they are found in Florida, but how they would have gotten here. There, we enter the realm of folklore. There is no concrete evidence as to how a jaguarundi population may have been established in Florida, but there are some urban legends, or more aptly, rural legends, that

offer possible origin stories. A grim one concerns a farm where jaguarundis were being raised for their pelts; when the place was shut down, the jaguarundis were released. Another posits an eccentric enthusiast who imported jaguarundis and released them into the Florida wilds.

Most colorful of all is the story of a circus train that derailed; some of the animals escaped and made new lives for themselves in the wild. This is, alas, unsupported by evidence, although it would make a marvelous children’s book. However they may have arrived here, jaguarundis would be like caimans, peacocks, Egyptian geese, and other exotics—species from far afield that have become established in Florida.

A Florida resident who has very close-up experience with jaguarundis is Jim Broaddus, founder of Bear Creek Feline Center in Panama City. The center is home to members of each of the three species of cats that Broaddus believes exist in the Florida wilds: the (uncontested) bobcat and Florida panther, and, yes, the jaguarundi (though the center’s two jaguarundis were born to displaced animals and do not represent a wild jaguarundi presence in Florida).

Broaddus considers the late Jim Fowler to have been his mentor; Fowler is remembered the world over as host of the beloved documentary series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Broaddus recalls telling Fowler about seeing a jaguarundi in the wilds of Florida. And with a gentle laugh, he recalls Fowler’s response: “He told me, ‘You need more water in your liquor.’”

Nevertheless, Broaddus is convinced there is a wild jaguarundi population in Florida, though he acknowledges that this is “unproven.” He says, “I wish somebody could prove me right or wrong—I’d go with them and carry their valise.”

Asked about the possibility of jaguarundis in or near Vero Beach, Broaddus, a man of folksy demeanor, quips: “If they are in the Vero area, they are as rare as hen’s teeth.” He suspects more remote areas, such as Ocala National Forest, as likely places for sightings.

The extremely long tail is one of the signature characteristics of the jaguarundi. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark
The extremely long tail is one of the signature characteristics of the jaguarundi. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

Broaddus believes he saw a jaguarundi once while he and his wife were driving between Tallahassee and the small town of Perry. “We were on a back road, it was the middle of the day, the sun was bright, and this cat bounded across the road. I did see it, and I’ve got jaguarundis right here (at Bear Creek Feline Center). This cat looked like a jaguarundi—and I would attest to that.” In a nod to Fowler’s remark, he adds, “No, we had not been drinking.”

What Broaddus really hopes for is more research activity on the habits and locations of wild jaguarundi populations. He believes such investigative work will lead to proof that wild jaguarundis do exist in Florida.

Of course, at Bear Creek Feline Center, Broaddus is around jaguarundis every day. The center provides sanctuary for various exotic cats; human visitors are welcomed by appointment only. Even in an enclosure, the reclusive nature of the species is apparent. “They find their safe place and hide,” he says.

Thus, jaguarundi are seldom on display in zoos, as “there wouldn’t be much to see.” Zoo visitors would be looking at an apparently empty habitat with a sign saying “Jaguarundi.” Furthermore, although the females may show a degree of affection, jaguarundis are definitely wild animals, and the males can be fierce. Broaddus is careful around his male jaguarundi, whose name, “Yoda,” befits a small but powerful warrior. “If you did see a jaguarundi in the wild, you wouldn’t want to say, ‘Here, kitty, kitty.’” Moreover, jaguarundis can move very quickly, adding to the difficulty of confirming sightings in the wild and obtaining photographic evidence. “They’re quick as lightning.”

A jaguarundi has quite a range of vocalizations, Broaddus reports. “It is said and generally agreed that these little cats may have as many as 13 vocalizations. When angered, I have heard them sound like a miniature chainsaw. In an altercation they have been known to make ferocious sounds similar to those made by dogs fighting. Also, we hear an occasional grunting utterance.” Perhaps most surprisingly, a jaguarundi can make a sound that resembles a chirping bird. However, “I would not think that this species has evolved to speak bird language,” quips Broaddus.

The rarity of jaguarundis led to the Bear Creek Feline Center receiving an intriguing visitor: Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer. Sartore has a remarkable project called the Photo Ark, wherein he is trying to take portraits of every species in zoos, aquariums, aviaries, and other places where animals are cared for by humans. Thus far, the Photo Ark includes some 12,000 species.

With about 15,000 species in human care worldwide, Sartore estimates that it will take a total of 25 years to complete the task. He hopes his portraits give people the sense
of looking animals in the eyes—thus inspiring care and appreciation. Thanks to the Bear Creek Feline Center, the jaguarundi is among the species whose portraits are already in the Photo Ark.

Before he set foot at Bear Creek, this globe-trotting photographer had never seen a jaguarundi in person— such is the rarity of these creatures. Then, he was face to face with two of them, “together in an indoor space.”

The two jaguarundis sat for their pictures, Sartore recalls, “and seemed to pose, though I know they weren’t crazy about me being there. They would look serene, but then they would hiss at me, so I made the shoot as quick as possible!

“They are fierce, and intimidating. They also look a bit like a cross between a dog and a cat.” He concludes, “Nothing else looks like them, and very few are in captivity, so I’m very grateful that Bear Creek gave me access to add them to the Photo Ark.”

Diminutive yet fiery, beautiful yet camouflaged, sought-after yet elusive, the jaguarundi is an enigmatic feline. The question of its presence or absence in the wilds of Florida continues to intrigue observers and spark curiosity. The mystery of the jaguarundi has yet to be solved.

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