Elizabeth Fleming, Florida Representative
One of the greatest obstacles to helping the Florida panther recover is that even the people who live with these animals in their backyard don’t always realize the steps they can take to protect them. Though already critically endangered, these panthers are constantly in danger thanks to collisions with vehicles, shrinking habitat, and people’s intolerance for living with a large predator. So as part of our campaign to Give Panthers a Brake, Defenders has been very busy with panther outreach in the lead up to Save the Florida Panther Day on March 16, 2013 and beyond.
In 1990, the state legislature established the third Saturday in March as Save the Florida Panther Day and governors have issued official proclamations promoting the day ever since. This year, Defenders has participated in several events across the state to educate Florida residents about panthers and what they can do to help them:
- On February 23rd and 24th, Defenders’ Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator and members of Defenders’ Panther Citizen Action Taskforce (PCAT) participated in the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Florida in rural Hendry County, which draws between 30,000 and 50,000 people each year. We joined efforts with other members of the Florida Panther Outreach Team to raise awareness about our official endangered state animal, and how to live and recreate responsibly in panther country. As part of our exhibit, we set up a demonstration of a predator-resistant enclosure and taught visitors how to protect their pets and livestock from local predators such as panthers, coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs and raccoons. We also handed out information on Defenders’ programs that help people to afford and construct these enclosures on their property.
- Defenders also handed out information about living in panther country at the Florida Panther Day event at the Naples Zoo. Several thousand people stopped by to meet panther field biologists, engage in activities for children and learn about opportunities to get involved in panther conservation.
- We staffed a table at a festival in the town of Ave Maria to provide information to hundreds of visitors about living responsibly with Florida panthers and other wildlife. This fairly new town, just 10 miles north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, has a small but growing residential population that is in need of constant education about living with panthers, bears and other local wildlife.
Throughout the month of March, Defenders and Panther Citizen Assistance Taskforce volunteers have been holding a table display at the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team games at the BB&T arena in Sunrise (a suburb of Fort Lauderdale), so that we can provide information on panthers to fans attending games and other events. Thanks to our supporters, we were able to fund a huge advertising blitz in the stadium to remind drivers to slow down on Florida’s roads. Our message is displayed on the scoreboard, the giant video screen at the entrance, even on the radio during home games, all to get the word out to visitors and residents that the real panthers – the four-legged ones – need a BRAKE!
- We worked to get an official proclamation signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott declaring March 16, 2013 as Save the Florida Panther Day. As part of the celebration, we staffed a booth at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge’s annual open house, which took place the same day. The refuge is usually closed to the public, so the open house gave visitors the opportunity to explore panther habitat through swamp buggy tours and guided walks. Visitors also attended presentations by panther biologists and visited with Defenders and other educational organizations and agencies.
- We’re working with other members of the Florida Panther Outreach Team to provide information about living with Florida panthers at the Collier County Fair. The predator-resistant livestock enclosure is on display to show people how to protect their livestock and pets at night. Thousands of rural residents and landowners have visited our display and talked to our outreach team members.
After we launched our campaign last month, our supporters across the U.S. have answered the call to help us Give Panthers a Brake. More than 59,000 of you have written to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking them to make it a priority to protect additional panther habitat and travel corridors to give these beautiful big cats more room to roam!
The last couple of months have been a busy time here at the Defenders Florida Office, but we’re glad that there are so many great opportunities to spread the word about the plight of these beautiful wild felines, and to help Floridians and panthers coexist. Taking this time to focus on the Florida panther reminds all of us that they need our assistance year-round.