The footprint was the size of a large dog’s. It seemed unassuming in the Florida mud, surrounded by the cartoonish prints left behind by wild turkeys. But I knew it belonged to a rare and elusive creature, a state icon. Yes, this was the mark of a Florida panther. Last weekend, I got a first-hand look at the fight to save this celebrated species.
The Florida Panther Festival in Naples was held on November 16th, and Defenders’ Florida office was vital in planning and coordinating the event. After meeting Shannon Miller and Elizabeth Fleming at their St. Petersburg office, I drove with Shannon down to Naples the day before the festival and got to work.
There was plenty to be done: held at North Collier Regional Park, the festival featured over 45 vendors and exhibitors, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Audubon Society and, of course, Defenders of Wildlife! Shannon and I made sure exhibitors and volunteers had everything they needed for a successful day at the festival before turning to our own booth. People were hard at work constructing livestock enclosures, building displays and preparing to give talks. It became clear that the festival was about more than Florida panthers: it was about teaching kids to appreciate and enjoy nature, helping people live harmoniously alongside wildlife and celebrating Florida’s rich and diverse natural habitat.
The festival’s outdoor Living with Wildlife Pavilion focused on educating festivalgoers on coexisting with wildlife in rural areas. It featured enclosures (occupied by goats and chickens!) designed to protect livestock from wild predators and displays on safely disposing of trash in bear country. Biologists and wildlife managers talked with visitors and gave tips on coexistence and safety. A notable feature of the pavilion was Ranger, a taxidermy Florida panther used to show the public what these big cats look like in real life.
Inside the park’s recreation building, vendors and exhibitors welcomed visitors with fun activities like face painting and scavenger hunts for kids and information on Florida wildlife. At the Defenders table, we listened to visitors share their stories about their encounters with Florida’s native animals, and we gave out guides to living with wildlife. In one of the meeting rooms, speakers gave talks about subjects ranging from coexistence with panthers and bears to Florida’s invasive python problem. Larry Richardson, supervisory wildlife biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, spoke on the importance of prescribed burning in panther habitat. The next day, I learned just what he was talking about when I had the rare opportunity to visit the refuge and see its beauty for myself.
We started off with a swamp buggy tour, plowing through deep standing water and passing by what seemed like hundreds of squat, stout cabbage palm trees. Refuge biologist Wade Gurley explained that these hardy palms are native to Florida, but if too prevalent can pose a danger to the trees around them.
Fires are beneficial to the refuge ecosystem, since fire is needed to germinate some plant species and changes understory competition so that new plants can grow. Cabbage palms, however, allow fires to “climb” them, reach the canopy and potentially kill off nearby evergreen and cypress trees, when normally they stay close to the ground. To maintain the health of the ecosystem, some cabbage palms are removed. This also allows refuge managers to conduct prescribed burns (controlled fires they start themselves) safely. It was an interesting lesson in how the refuge is managed, and how that management improves habitat.
Toward the end of the ride, our own Laurie Macdonald spotted a treasure: Florida panther tracks! Wade stopped the buggy so we could take a look and snap a few photos.
The second half of the tour was a nature walk, where Larry Richardson led us through part of the refuge. He pointed out bear scat (where a multitude of seeds from fruit the bear had eaten were now growing quite rapidly!) and a panther scrape, from when a Florida panther stopped to scrape the ground and scent mark its territory. Larry invited us to look closer, and we saw another scrape close by. He told us that he himself had actually made it several days ago to tempt the panther to follow suit so we could see a real one. It certainly worked!
On our way out of Naples, Elizabeth and I drove through panther habitat outside of the refuge, and she showed me the wildlife crossings built to allow panthers and other wildlife to safely pass beneath busy roads. We got out of the car for a closer look and I was treated to one last surprise: two alligators basking on the banks of a canal by the roadside!
When I left for Florida, I was determined to learn why the panther was so important, and why Floridians and conservationists were so passionate about it. The Florida panther is a beautiful and unique subspecies, worth protecting in its own right. But I also realized that saving the Florida panther means saving Florida’s priceless natural habitat. This species is truly representative of the state and its wild places, which are unlike anywhere else in the world.
I’m so grateful to the Florida office for their time and help in making this trip a truly special one, and I can’t wait to return. Most of all, I can’t wait to work even harder to help protect the Florida panther and the other unique species that call Florida home.
Haley McKey, Communications Associate