US authorities have arrested two men after a year-long investigation found that they were the ones who allegedly manhandled and harassed federally protected Florida panther kittens and alligators.
On Tuesday, 13 February, Alfredo Lopez de Queralta and Javier Torres were arrested on eight felony counts each of killing, injuring or possessing alligators or eggs without authority and eight counts of misdemeanour pertaining to handling or endangering threatened species, the Miami Herald reported.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) arrest report stated that the alleged incident took place in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 2017 when Torres allegedly harassed the animals while Queralta filmed it. The pair had also allegedly posted the videos on YouTube and titled them "Pantera de la Florida con dos Cachorros", which means "Florida Panther with two cubs" in English.
The alleged harassment videos of the animals were first seen by the authorities in February 2017. They initially doubted their authentication but soon the probe was launched.
One of the videos shows Torres walking through a wooded area and then crawling into a panther's den, while Queralta, who was behind the camera, can be heard whispering "Pantera". In the same video, Torres can also be seen holding, kissing and cuddling two Florida panther kittens.
He then faces the camera held by Queralta and says one kitten is male and the other female. "He poses with the kittens again before tossing them back into the den," a report written by FWC investigator Guy Gilbert says.
The report adds that officials with FWC and agents with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service have also found a number of other videos on YouTube showing Torres allegedly harassing animals. But most of them allegedly show him irritating alligators to varying degrees while Queralta records him.
"There are several videos of this activity and they show the carelessness of Torres' behaviour. In one video, he wades into a swamp to capture an alligator, and then holds the alligator's mouth open while he puts his head inside the mouth," Gilbert claimed.
He added in the report that in some videos alligators can be seen trying hard to get away from Torres "but he continues to harass the animals by grabbing them, capturing them, sitting on top of them and pulling them around", the Miami Herald reported.
According to the report, Torres "did not obtain any permits or licence that would allow him to possess, capture, injure or kill American alligators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or the US Fish and Wildlife Service or any portion of the Big Cypress National Preserve".
Florida panthers have been listed as an endangered species under federal law and those found harming them may be sentenced to up to one year in jail and receive a fine of up to $100,000 (£71,373).
In this case, both Torres and Queralta have been set at an $80,000 bond by a judge.