FORT MYERS — With only 120 to 230 adult Florida panthers left in the wild, the species needs all the help it can get. Education could be the key to their survival and Florida Gulf Coast
University’s Wings of Hope program has stepped up.
Since 2000, its Panther Posse has taught more than 5,500 fourth and fifth grader students annually about panthers and other species that rely on a healthy Florida habitat. The program requires the young scholars to spread the information they learn to at least two family members, increasing the reach of the program by about 12,000 people.
“They will be the voice of these animals into the future,” said program founder and director Ricky Pires.
An additional part of the Panther Posse program is a presentation by Bryce Osceola, who discusses the culture and history of the Tribe.
“People need to know about the ancient culture that is still here,” said Osceola, an FGCU senior.
About 100 students from Vineyards Elementary in Naples participated in the program Dec. 5, which is part of FGCU’s environmental humanities curriculum. University students and volunteers teach the science-based Panther Posse and introduce students to native wildlife and their habitats.
Students moved through four stations for hands-on activities in which they learned about the natural history of the panther and its kittens, how to recognize tracks, black bears and other “umbrella” species who share the habitat, panther research and water conservation. Slides, videos, notebooks and interactive activities kept the students engaged.
Students learned how to co-exist with wildlife, including black bears, by taking simple steps such as taking out the household garbage on the morning of pickup instead of leaving it out all night for bears to find and ransack.
“The program increases awareness of the panthers,” said Vineyards fifth grade teacher Nicole Burton. “Students have to teach their parents and have them fill out a survey, so it’s about educating not just themselves. This is the best program, they are so engaged.”
Students learned panthers sometimes kill each other over territory and food and that some are better mothers than others. Sometimes a mother panther will abandon her cub if food is scarce, but usually they remain together for about 18 months.
Osceola got involved with the Panther Posse in 2015 after the state approved a legal bear hunt. She contacted Pires and offered to teach about Seminole culture.
“This [the Panther Posse] gives kids a new perspective of how to look at nature and develop a healthy relationship with the natural world,” said Osceola. “When the bear hunt happened, members of the bear clan protested.”
Osceola’s presentation was the last of the day. She asked if anyone had cousins and of course they all raised their hands, which led Osceola to explain clans and the matriarchy of the Tribe. She also told them about the Tribe’s relation to nature.
“The Seminole Tribe believes plants and animals have equal rights as humans,” she said. “We all need a home and food. Animals are our friends and we have a lot of respect for their space.”