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How Highway Underpasses are Saving Panthers in Florida

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About the size of a large Golden Retriever, Florida panthers come in various shades of tan, with pale bellies and tails almost as long as their bodies. Also known as pumas, these endangered cats live mostly solitary lives, seldom vocalize, and hunt at dawn and dusk. No wonder that humans rarely encounter them—except on roads.

After a century of paying bounties for dead panthers, the state of Florida listed the animals as endangered in 1958; the federal government did so in 1967. In the 1970s, with wildlife officials uncertain whether a viable population remained, several preserves were established, and a panther recovery team was formed. Today, the entire population currently numbers fewer than 180 cats, according to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. And as the panther population grows, it faces more risk on the road. In fact, collisions with vehicles are the leading cause of death for these animals: As of June 25, 2014, at least 12 Florida panthers had been killed by vehicles. In 2013, the toll was 15 and in 2012, 18.

The species once ranged across seven states, but in recent years, the entire breeding population has lived south of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River. That area likely has reached capacity, which means some panthers need to find new homes. In the process, they almost certainly will have to cross roads.

Road kill is not a problem unique to panthers, of course. An estimated one to two million collisions with large animals, such as deer or moose, occur each year in the U.S. Add in small animals—all those raccoons, armadillos and skunks you see flattened on the highway—and the number goes much higher. According to the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle collisions are a serious threat for at least 20 endangered or threatened species in addition to the panthers.

In an effort to save panthers, the state of Florida has installed warning signs and reduced speed limits in high-panther-traffic areas, but these haven’t proven to be very effective. So biologists have pinned their hopes on a more expensive but also more effective solution: Specially designed underpasses that allow panthers to get from one side of a road to the other without encountering vehicles.

These kinds of wildlife crossings—both underpasses and overpasses—have proven to be the most effective way to stop the carnage, according to Jon Beckmann, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. A Utah State University study found that two crossings on interstates in the state reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions in the area by up to 90 percent. (Engineers with the Utah Department of Transportation figure the structures paid for themselves in less than three years by eliminating costly vehicle repairs.) And in Canada, overpasses reduced mule deer and elk road kill by more than 90 percent, and in Florida, four culverts on a mile of U.S. Highway 27 that bisects Lake Jackson save hundreds of turtles and other animals every year.

In order for the crossings to be effective, they “have to be put in the right place, designed appropriately and maintained,” says Beckmann. The crossings typically have fencing to direct animals and vegetation to make them feel safe when using one.

So far, 59 panther crossings have been installed on about 40 miles of Florida highways, according to Darrell Land, Florida panther team leader for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Based on reported collisions, these have significantly reduced localized panther road kill. Land has identified many other places that need crossings, and keeps an eye out for road maintenance or upgrade projects that he can piggyback a crossing project onto.

Florida also is currently testing use of roadside animal detection systems (RADs), which use light beams tripped by an animal to activate flashing lights to warn motorists. The University of Central Florida’s biology department is in the second year of monitoring RADs along a few miles of US 41 in the Big Cypress National Preserve. This is the first use of the system with animals the size of panthers (typically RADs are set for deer, elk and moose), so researchers are anxious to see whether the trips work and, of course, whether drivers pay any attention.

At least one panther-vehicle collision has occurred on US 41 despite the RADs. “There are a lot of hurdles for a system like this to be an effective tool,” says Land. “It’s a complicated system with a lot of moving parts, compared to a wildlife crossing with a fence that you can easily monitor and see whether it is in working order. I don’t think RADs will ever be a replacement for crossings.”

If you see a panther, report the sighting. That will help biologists identify areas used by these large cats and, just maybe, help keep them from becoming road kill.

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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