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A Florida panther's tail flicks by at night in the florida wild with ferns
Panther tail Camera trap photo of a panther tail (Puma concolor coryi) in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on a trail leading into the upper Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The Nature Conservancy works to protect land in Florida by partnering with private landowners and state government entities to help preserve wildlife habitat and to help support wildlife corridors. October 2018. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Land & Water Stories

Panther Culture: Lost and Found

Though most Floridians will never see a Florida panther in the wild, taking pride in their elusive state animal is key to its survival.

Cougars. Wildcats. Pumas.

The words may strike up an image of a big cat roaming the mountainous western United States but in the eastern U.S. they’ll most likely conjure up an image of a high school football team.

Far from the mountains of the West, Floridians are the only people within a thousand miles who can actually claim to live among a population of these big cats.

Camera trap image of a Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on a trail leading into the upper Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The Nature Conservancy works to protect land in Florida by partnering with private landowners and state government entities to help preserve wildlife habitat and to help support wildlife corridors.
Panther at FPNWR Camera trap image of a Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on a trail leading into the upper Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The Nature Conservancy works to protect land in Florida by partnering with private landowners and state government entities to help preserve wildlife habitat and to help support wildlife corridors. © Carlton Ward Jr.

 Here in Florida, they’re called panthers. They’re the official state animal. And yet, there are still many residents who don’t know what the elusive predators look like.

“There’s no such thing as black panthers. Those are leopards and jaguars,” says Ricky Pires, affectionately known as “Mrs. Ricky” by the thousands of Florida elementary students she educates each year. “Carolina Panthers [the North Carolina-based NFL team] are black, but that’s not real. That’s why they’re not winning.” (At the time of the interview, the Carolina Panthers were 0-2).

Florida panthers are everywhere and nowhere

Beyond knowing its coloring, there’s the active exercise of remembering they’re even there. An animal as elusive as the Florida panther doesn’t do a lot of self-advertisement.

Two ways to be reminded at all of its existence are to follow the NHL’s Florida Panthers (Miami’s pro hockey team, featuring the more accurate tawny coloring) or to drive along roads in panther country and see the yellow crossing signs. 

Florida man with tank top showing off florida panther tattoo on his arm while standing in a florida forest
Panther Tattoo Mark Lotz, a panther biologist with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, displays a new tattoo (his first) showing a male Florida panther named Yuma. Lotz rescued Yuma as a stranded kitten and the panther now lives in a facility at Homosassa Springs State Park. Scientists such as Lotz are helping to bring Florida panther populations back within the state. May 2019. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Just like how the real Florida panther was never completely lost even in its most meager years, symbols of the cat show up throughout the state if you keep your eyes and ears open. The panther can appear on a mural in town or as a tattoo on someone’s shoulder. It also plays an important role in a creation story of the Seminole Tribe in Florida, in which the panther is the first being to walk the Earth.

As recently as 30 years ago there may have only been a dozen walking the Earth.

Aerial footage over a new housing development near Orlando, FL. The development is adjacent to one of the most narrow and fragile threads of wildlife habitat in the corridor.
Sprawling Florida development Aerial footage over a new housing development near Orlando, FL. The development is adjacent to one of the most narrow and fragile threads of wildlife habitat in the corridor. © Carlton Ward Jr

“They weren’t part of my world”

Inclusion on the federal Endangered Species list, human intervention to deepen its gene pool and land conservation by groups like The Nature Conservancy have brought the big cat back to around 200 animals.

And with numbers seemingly going in the right direction, there’s plenty of education needed for a Florida that’s growing in population, often because people are relocating from other states. 

“Typically the message you hear around rare animals is that they just keep on going down,” says Tim Tetzlaff, conservation director at the Naples Zoo. “This is an animal who's actually in an upswing, so fundamentally, people need to know we're in a new era of panther conservation.”

Even for longtime Floridians this is a change. Tetzlaff grew up in the state at a time when there may have been as few as 10 left in existence. They simply were not part of his world growing up.

banner with image of a florida panther painted on it signed by elementary school students
Panther Posse Banner A banner celebrating the Florida panther signed by students at Poinciana Elementary School in Naples, FL is displayed at the Florida Panther Festival at Naples Zoo. © Wings of Hope / FGCU Panther Posse

Panther Posse to the rescue

The Florida youth of today are in a different place and programs exist to acculturate them to their furry neighbors.

“Most of the kids who come here do live in panther habitat,” says Pires. “So they learn how to coexist with them.”

Pires is the founder and director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s (FGCU) Wings of Hope program, which connects 450 FGCU students with more than 5,000 4th and 5th graders each year. They arrive on campus in their “yellow limos” (school buses) and participate in a program called Panther Posse.

Panther Posse helps students understand their state animal on their own terms. “With approximately 150-200 panthers out there, that’s about the size of their 4th grade. It’s very powerful for them to make that connection,” says Pires.

Elementary students smile in a classroom with teachers and chaperones as they hold stuffed animals of baby florida panthers
Panther Posse in Classroom Elementary students in Florida learn about the Florida panther through the Panther Posse program at Florida Gulf Coast University. Directed by Mrs. Ricky Pires, the program educates 5,500 4th and 5th graders across 38 schools. Another segment of the program is called "Bear Brigade." © FGCU Wings of Hope / Panther Posse

The students can make a difference right away by educating a parent or raising funds for camera trap research (Pennies for Panthers), but the true power of Pires’ program lies further into the future.

“If people don’t understand it, they’re not going to vote to save its habitat,” says Pires. “They’re the future of the Florida panther. Some of these children could be our governor, right?”

Mural of a florida panther, black bear, deer, owl, coyote, alligator, rabbit and spoonbill on side of a building
Panther Mural A mural idolizing iconic Florida wildlife occupies a wall in the Wynwood Arts District of Miami. The mural by artist Diana Garcia includes the Florida black bear, American alligator, spoonbill, coyote, Key Deer, monarch butterfly and more. The panther takes the center of the artwork. © Carlton Ward Jr.

“The panther is their panther”

Florida panther advocates are already out in force and their energy can mean a lot at this critical time in the protection of their corridor. Wendy Mathews, TNC’s conservation projects manager in Florida, attended a public comment period about a proposed toll road plan that could cut through the heart of panther habitat. She was inspired by the many commenters who had never seen a panther in the wild yet eloquently represented the panther’s habitat needs.  

“The panther is their panther. It's their state animal, it’s a symbol of natural Florida, a symbol of a healthy environment and ecosystem,” said Mathews. “I felt they had an ownership of it and a responsibility for ensuring its survival.”

Some of these children could be our governor, right?

Panther supporters also show up in numbers to the Naples Zoo, which houses a Florida panther abandoned at birth and also runs an annual Panther Festival. Tetzlaff acknowledges that while he's thankful for the people who show up for every panther-related event, it's the rest of the region that he'd like to reach.

Urge Congress to Act

Without strong funding for LWCF, habitat protection for the panther is in jeopardy.

Help Save Panthers

That’s why the zoo moved the festival to one of its free Saturdays: to encourage more people from across the urban-rural divide to get acquainted with their “new” neighbor.

It will be a different experience for people on farms versus people in condos. Afterall, people who raise livestock will sometimes need to deal with panthers preying upon their animals. Tetzlaff dreams that one year, folks at the Panther Festival will give a hand for the ranchers out there whose bottom lines are tested by the panther’s appetite.

Across all walks of life in Florida, a little more understanding about this lost and found state animal can make people’s lives better everywhere.

As Mrs. Ricky Pires tells all the future governors in the room, “When you save the Florida panther, you’re going to save clean water and clean air, so we're also saving ourselves.”