A documentary on the plight of the Florida panther premieres this week
The award-winning film will be released in over 40 theaters in Florida — including Tampa — on Feb. 24. The film's photographer and producer will host a Q&A session Friday and Sunday night at the Tampa Theatre.
Hunting and development brought the Florida panther to the brink of extinction. And its fate is still in the air, as the endangered cats move north from their bastion in the Everglades.
A new documentary on their plight, "Path of the Panther," premieres at theaters statewide this week.
It was a production more than five years in the making.
The film is the cornerstone of a project that helped pass the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. The goal is to preserve a natural pathway for animals to migrate before development cuts them off.
The documentary was a labor of love for Tampa nature photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and filmmaker Eric Bendick, who says he hopes to spur momentum to save these lands.
"When I'm out in wild places, there's just a whole sense of reverence, but also a sense that, gosh, I really want future generations to have these places so that they can experience the same thing and that they can be recharged and kind of reinspired the way I have," Bendick said.
"If the panther were to reestablish along its historical range through the whole state, it would just show us where those wild places are, how to protect them, and how to link them all up into this corridor. So it ends up being like a perfect emblem for this idea, and really a chance for the world to see it."
Bendick and Ward will host a Q&A session on the documentary Friday and Sunday nights (Feb. 24 and 26) at the Tampa Theatre.
Reaching near extinction in the 1950s, the Florida panther was among the first to be added to the U.S. endangered species list in 1973. The population has since rebounded from fewer than 30 adults to nearly 200 today.
But the species faces an alarming number of new challenges. Its survival now depends on the protection of a network of statewide public and private lands called the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Here's a portion of WUSF's interview with Eric Bendick:
How long did it take to produce "Path of the Panther?"
BENDICK: Well, we were out a long time. So we say five years from start to finish. But that is a little bit of a cheat, because Carlton was actually already living in this swamp for a full year before we started filming just to see what would happen. And at that point, he was going just for still photos. And when, when we got involved was really in 2017. And it was right at the moment where this female who came to known as Babs in the film made her way north into the northern Everglades. Really, she was the first female in that region of the Everglades in almost 50 years.
And at that point, the story really took off. And our engagement with the story really took off. So I say five years, but it really was more like six years. And the reason that it took this long, there are a couple of reasons. The camera trap work itself is so painstaking and slow. And you know, you go months without getting anything usable, either a photo or video. And then the other real reason that it took as long as it did was just threads of the story started to unfold before our eyes to the point where we had to follow them to see what was going to happen. And the main ones were this potential toll road that was looking like it was gonna go right through this panther habitat.
The Heartland Parkway, I think was called.
Yeah, it's been called a few things over the years. And it's sort of been resurrected numerous times. And so we had to kind of follow that thread. And then we also had a hurricane come right over the top of the core of panther habitat. And, of course, that destroyed all of our cameras, and destroyed everything we have set in the field. But then ... we just didn't know if our central character, Babs, whether she would survive this thing, and how it would affect the panther population. The last big thread was really the presence of this new disease that cropped up within the panther population. And so all of those things led us to the story that we have now to feature film. And we're happy to say that our commitment was just follow these threads and see where they lead. And that's how the film became what it is today.
"And then we also had a hurricane come right over the top of the core of panther habitat. And, of course, that destroyed all of our cameras, when destroyed everything we have set in the field."Eric Bendick
I see you have interviews with Betty Osceola. Tell us about her connection to the land and their protection of the panther.
That's a wonderful human, Betty Osceola, that we were able to work with. And we were really interested in this story that kind of was almost like a rumor of there being a panther, in the tree islands of the Everglades. So these are these really kind of remote parts of the Everglades that are mostly flooded. And then there are, you know, a few patches of high ground. And some of these tree islands are very sacred places to the Miccosukee. And then Betty was kind of our guidance ambassador. And really, more than that she was kind of our mentor in the sense that she was able to tell us about not only the kind of physical geography of this place, but spiritually what it meant, and what it means to the Miccosukee to the Seminole, and how it all fits in and how all those pieces fit together.
So we actually went to a tree island in the middle of the Everglades, and this was a place where this crazy video exists, a panther that somehow made it to the super remote spot. And we kind of assess like, would this place be habitable for a panther today? And Carlton gets out of the boat, there's a funny moment where he just kind of steps out and he's like, if a python gets me you'll help me, right? And Betty's like, yeah, well, I'll film it. So it's a classic moment but it ended up that this whole area was totally flooded.
"...if the Everglades is becoming less habitable over time, for panthers, where are they going to live? Where are they going to move? What's their new habitat going to be? And so it was really an inspiration for us to think about what it means that this new panther has moved into this northern Everglades habitat."Eric Bendick
And I learned from Betty that this is happening more and more that development on all sides of the Everglades is really pumping water into the Everglades to the point where some of these places may be fully underwater permanently. And it's a real loss, not just for the panther, but for this sacred ground that we were on. And it also kicks off our journey in the sense that, OK, if the Everglades is becoming less habitable over time, for panthers, where are they going to live? Where are they going to move? What's their new habitat going to be? And so it was really an inspiration for us to think about what it means that this new panther has moved into this northern Everglades habitat.
And I think ultimately, whether the panther survives is going to be connected to whether it can become an all-Florida animal versus just a South Florida animal. So that's one of our key points is that, for Florida, this is our state animal, and it needs to become really a state animal. It needs to become all throughout the state. And hopefully, it'll happen in our lifetimes.
As the panthers are forced to move north because of climate change, development, pressure and such, they're coming into increasing contact with humans. So this really doubles down on the need to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor, the preserved lands that hopefully eventually will stretch from the Everglades north to the Okefenokee and Georgia and to the west, into the Panhandle. So this part of the mission of this documentary is to promote the need for a wildlife corridor?
Absolutely. The fate of the Florida panther really hinges on the presence of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. And, and more generally, the idea that the Earth is a connected place, and that we have through our own kind of ignorance, not because we wanted to, but because of the way we've disrupted the natural flow of water and land and connectivity with our own human needs. We risk cutting off animals like the Florida panther from the range that they need to survive.
So the corridor is really a model for the world. It's a model for how to really establish a connected landscape again, and the coolest part about it is that we can actually follow these panthers and learn from their natural intelligence, where the hope is kind of where the places are, that we can stitch together that are still protected enough, still wild enough to give us this chance to save it. So if we think theoretically big picture, if the panther were to reestablish along its historical range through the whole state, it would just show us where those wild places are, how to protect them, and how to link them all up into this quarter. So it ends up being like a perfect emblem for this idea, and really a chance for the world to see it.
"I think for me, personally, I find that those places really recharge me. They are where I get my energy and inspiration from and they also kind of are humbling places."Eric Bendick
You mentioned the kind of spiritual connection the Miccosukees, the Seminoles have to the panther. How do you feel when you're out there and you could finally spot one or see it in a camera trap, secondhand? What is the connection for you to this animal?
I think being in the presence of animals like panthers, or a grizzly bear or any of these wild things, it could be a manatee in certain places, it could be just inhabiting that space, really kind of resets your perspective as a person. I think for me, personally, I find that those places really recharge me. They are where I get my energy and inspiration from and they also kind of are humbling places. I mean, these are really powerful animals and there's so much respect for the fact that they truly live off the land and are in this place and it really does feel the more time you spend out there, the more it feels kind of like home. It's kind of my second home.
When I'm out in wild places, there's just a whole sense of reverence, but also a sense that, gosh, I really want future generations to have these places so that they can experience the same thing and that they can be recharged and kind of reinspired the way I have.