Jimmie McDaniel Takes a Road Trip to See the Florida Panther He Raised 17 Years Ago
Seventy-seven-year-old Jimmie McDaniel comes by his love of wildlife honestly. At age 6 he began working at the Welaunee Plantation, where his father had been hired as a “bird-rider” in 1917 and later managed the plantation for the Fleishmann family owners.
Perhaps McDaniel’s Native American blood from his mother’s side of the family, Cherokee and Creek, gave him a special affinity for wild animals.
During his time at Florida Fish & Wildlife from 1960 to 1991 he would sometimes make news by extricating alligators, bears or other wildlife from areas where they weren’t welcome. On one such occasion, an alligator bite left him with permanent damage to his left trigger finger. He’s been shot twice accidentally and part of a bullet is still lodged in his stomach muscle. “The bullet glanced off the back of a gator,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t even know I was hit until I looked down and saw blood.”
Once a McDaniel family pet, Hajo the Florida panther now lives in a small habitat in the Seminole Okalee Village in Hollywood. Photo courtesy Jimmie McDaniel
While his longish hair pushed the regulations in his working years, McDaniel has now let it grow past his shoulders — “gone Indian,” is how some of his friends put it. Appearances aside, he was trained for his duties, graduating from Leon High School in 1953, obtaining a degree in biology from Florida State University and a master’s degree in Wildlife Management from Auburn University.
At different times during McDaniel’s 31 years as a state wildlife officer, he tried to “tame” some of the animals that were abandoned, including a bobcat (not successfully) and two cub bears (somewhat successfully).
Speaking about the bears, he recalled, “I raised the two cubs, a male and a female. The female was a little boisterous. I would mix vanilla wafers in the dog food I fed them. The female would root out the dog food and eat just the vanilla wafers.”
When the two bears got bigger and keeping them became a problem, he donated them to the Tallahassee Museum, the first bears to live there.
He continued the story: “A month or so later, I got a call from the museum. The female had escaped. They wanted to know if I would come out and help them capture the bear. I said I would but I had to go by the grocery store first. When I got to the museum habitat, a worker was there and we walked the fence and found where the bear had gotten out. From there we tracked the bear for about a thousand yards and there she was, looking not too happy.
“The worker looked at me and said, ‘How are we gonna take her back?’ I held the box of vanilla wafers up and shook it. Then we started walking back to the habitat. That female bear followed us all the way back and right into the habitat. That bear loved vanilla wafers.”
After retiring from his state job, Florida Seminole Tribe Chairman James Billie enticed McDaniel to work at Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in Clewiston, where he stayed for 10 years. “I set up habitats, helped him with his ‘Billie Swamp Safari,’ that sort of thing. It was fun,” he said.
It was there he met a Florida Panther he would name Hajo, the Seminole word for warrior.
“One of the female panthers in the habitat had a litter. I took a male kit to see if I could tame it. I bottle-fed it and raised it just like a regular cat. It had its own litter box.”
Hajo bonded with McDaniel and family photos show the spotted baby cat sitting in the laps of his children. “Oh, we all loved him,” said McDaniel’s wife of 52 years, Patsy. The panther would come when he was called, “just like a little puppy,” he said.
“Course, he got big after a couple of years. When he was little, one of his favorite games would be to run and jump into my arms. As he grew, he became a load but he kept it up. One day he leaped on me, just playing, and accidentally nipped my left earlobe. It bled pretty good from the slash. I went to a clinic to have it sewed up. They asked me, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘A panther bit me.’ Their eyes got real big.”
Hajo lived with the McDaniel family for two years, but the time came when the cat had to leave. “My friends wouldn’t visit me because of Hajo. He’d gotten big — 130 pounds. Sometimes I would have to put him in a large kennel. He didn’t like that.”
Hajo returned to the reservation to live in a special panther habitat. “It was the only thing I could do,” he says now, with a catch in his voice.
“After a couple of years, I got a call from the habitat. Hajo had a hurt paw. He wouldn’t let anyone near him. They asked me if I would come down and help them doctor it. I said sure. Frankly, I didn’t know if he would remember me. So I walked into the habitat and sat down on a log and waited. Hajo came over and laid his head on my leg. I stroked him for a few moments and checked his paws. He must have sprained a leg and that’s why he had been limping. I could find nothing visibly wrong. After awhile I got up. Gave him a final stroke and walked away.”
In December, McDaniel decided to take a road trip to visit the now 17-year-old panther.
Hajo had since moved, to the Seminole Okalee Village in Hollywood, part of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and entertainment complex. McDaniel and friends left his Gadsden County farm at 8 a.m., but between getting lost and South Florida traffic, the group didn’t arrive at the Village until right before closing time. Despite dropping Chairman Billie’s name, the group was politely, but firmly, turned away.
Those same workers were wide-eyed the next morning when Billie, who helicoptered into the complex to attend a law enforcement gathering, took time to personally escort McDaniel to visit his old friend. The two reminisced about their days working together, laughing as they recalled a trip to Nicaragua. When they stepped off the plane, officials mistook McDaniel as the chief because of his long hair.
It was lunchtime when the group finally arrived at Hajo’s habitat, about 20 feet square. Wildlife Supervisor Giselle Hosein set out two stainless steel bowls of raw meat, one for Hajo and the other for a smaller 21-year-old female panther with arthritis.
Hajo appeared, a huge panther in perfect condition, with a shining coat and bright eyes. McDaniel stepped over the railing and got close to the panther’s bowl, calling “Hajo, Hajo.”
Hajo kept eating, finished and turned away. McDaniel called his name twice again. Hajo looked back then walked toward McDaniel, stopping about 2 feet away. For a moment it looked as though he would come to the screen — but he turned away.
“He doesn’t remember me,” McDaniel said sadly, contenting himself with taking pictures of the beautiful animal through the mesh fence.
Driving home, McDaniel said he was disappointed Hajo hadn’t remembered him and was dismayed by his new home. “The habitat at the Billie Swamp Safari was at least four times larger. It had Palmettos and an oak tree … very natural. Where he is now is more like a cage than a habitat.”
Hajo was raised by humans and knew their touch. Some 15 years later he seems to have forgotten who took care of him. But Jimmie McDaniel and his family have not forgotten Hajo.