Even those of us who have lived in Florida our entire lives have likely never seen a wild Florida Panther. The creatures remain extremely elusive, and if we have seen them, it was likely in a zoo setting. While the creature serves as the state animal (since 1982), the lack of knowledge about how close they are to extinction does not match their popularity. This makes The Path of the Panther, a new documentary from National Geographic and filmmaker Eric Bendick, an essential watch. As Florida continues to develop, the fight to save these creatures becomes more critical than ever.
National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and Dr. Lara Cusack put themselves in the fight for the Florida Panther. The endangered species live throughout the state but struggle for survival. With under 250 in the wild, conservation efforts remain integral to ensure the creature’s survival. When a proposed toll road threatens to cut through the habitat of one of the only known panthers, conservationists, scientists, and activists step into the fight to save this land.
Bendick draws from many perspectives to show the true stakes and views on the fight to save “wild” Florida. He wisely includes scientists and conservationists but also pulls in unexpected allies. Over time, cattle ranchers and farmers speak up about the overdevelopment of Florida. Losing acreage to more housing developments does not benefit the state.
While many view the state as a tourist destination, the odd shape of Florida also means many areas do not rely on tourism. These individuals need this land maintained, as many live off it for personal and economic benefits. An over-developed Florida means the disappearance of natural preserves and farmland alike. A rancher confirming that they can live in symbiosis with a big cat proves a give-and-take benefits all sides in this fight.
Perhaps the most vital aspects of The Path of the Panther highlight the importance of this fight for all of Florida. Indigenous Miccosukee residents preach about the power the creature holds in their customs. A montage of a camera set up by Ward showcases dozens of species walking down a path. Yes, there are alligators, but also present are Panthers, Florida Black Bears, and other medium-sized cats.
These ecosystems are thriving and diverse, but rarely do they earn comparisons to rainforests in other areas of the world. Showcasing the breadth of Florida’s ecology makes it clear that fighting for the Panther is essential but highlights the creatures we’ll lose next if actions are not taken.
The cinematography throughout The Path of the Panther highlights the beauty of these environments and creatures. Both Ward and Cusack brighten when they see the natural wildlife thriving. It also means we see the frustrating aspects of the fight. The film opens with a dead panther on the side of a highway. We also see the neurological disease ravaging Panther kittens up close. Even in the beauty, there are problems we can work to fix.
The Path of the Panther is essential viewing for any conservationist or Floridian. The fight continues and remains too important to overlook. This creature can remain an American and Floridian icon. However, we need more effort and more attention on this fight.