This is no ordinary Florida panther. It traveled the world in less than a week, but how? It has a limited home range (South/Central Florida), can’t swim across the world’s major oceans and could never accomplish such a feat. What’s the catch? Well, its journey began on social media. For being such an elusive animal, it could not escape the spotlight when it visited the porch of Phil Hendra’s father, who lives in Fort Myers, Florida. This incredible photo was taken, we shared the story on our Facebook page and the rest is internet history.
I first encountered this photo on Facebook in late March, and there was misinformation spreading across social media concerning where the panther was sighted. The story had legs by the time I got to it, and over 2,000 people had already shared a Facebook post with incorrect sighting information. I had to be proactive at this moment or we would quickly lose our ability to control the message and release correct sighting information on behalf of the agency. I contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) panther biologists, who confirmed the sighting location to be in Fort Myers and not in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties as some local news outlets had reported. Our biologists put me in contact with Phil Hendra, the man who saw the panther on his father’s porch and took the special photo. Mr. Hendra gave me permission to share his image on our Facebook page, and he also provided more details about the sighting and talked about his experience at great length. Everything fell into place that day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon fact checking, gathering additional information and obtaining quotes to include in my draft. I was inspired after hearing about Phil’s experience with our state animal, and I knew I had an obligation to share his “once in a lifetime” encounter with the world. Little did I know, this porch panther from Southwest Florida would make it halfway across the globe in a matter of hours.
Stories like this only come around so often, but I couldn’t let my excitement cloud my judgment. There were potential issues that needed to be addressed before deciding to go public. Will there be public safety concerns among local residents once they find out a panther is roaming their neighborhood? Does this photo highlight a failure of the FWC to properly manage this species in the first place? Will this content encourage people to actively seek out the panther and try to harm it? I had my doubts about moving forward with the story, but the pros outweighed the cons in my eyes. It brought national attention to an endangered species that desperately needed it. It also sparked an important discussion about habitat loss, which caused near extinction of the species years ago and continues to be a problem today. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we completely wipe out the only remaining habitat the Florida panther has left. Human-panther encounters are a direct result of this habitat loss, and the image had an impact that was hard to even measure. Thousands of users made jokes and responded to the photo in a humorous manner, but many others realized the severity of the situation and felt compelled to share this story.
As with any trending or viral story on social media, it left quicker than it arrived. Local, state and national news outlets covered the story when it broke. It was an eye-catching image which immediately grabbed your attention. It undoubtedly became the symbol of a larger issue that may be too late to fix. It’s any social media manager’s dream to receive as much press and attention as we did during that time, and our brand reaped the benefits as a result. If you have a great story to tell and your heart and mind are fully behind it, take a chance and see what happens.