By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - A rare Florida panther, found near death as a 1-pound newborn in January, bounded into its permanent new fenced home in a state park on Thursday, now a lively, nearly 50-pound kitten.

"He's really a miracle cat," said Susan Strawbridge of the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

A critically endangered animal, only 100 to 180 Florida panthers are believed to be in existence.

State biologists working at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Naples stumbled by chance on the kitten that had been abandoned by its mother in her den, according to Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The kitten, whose eyes were not yet open, was non-responsive and dehydrated. Its body temperature was so low that one of the biologists tucked the kitten inside his coat to use his body heat to warm it on the way to an emergency animal hospital.

"His chances were about 50-50. Every morning, I would check on him to make sure he was still around," Parker said.

After months of bottle-feeding and rehabilitation, the panther, who was named Yuma - an American Indian word meaning "son of the chief" - was moved to the park 70 miles north of Tampa.

A special 80-by-120-foot habitat with a hard-floored pool, climbing logs and natural vegetation was created for the panther's home. He has bobcats to play with next door.

Parker said Yuma could not be released into the wild because his mother did not stay with him long enough to teach him survival skills and he had become habituated to humans.

Parker said no one knew why Yuma's mother abandoned him. Parker said Yuma was born healthy and had made a full recovery, which was on display at his new home.

"He was bouncing around, chasing butterflies, checking out his neighbors," said Parker. "He's a hoot." 


(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Peter Cooney)