This is no ordinary panther. It traveled the world in less than a week, but how did it do it? The Florida panther has a limited home range (South/Central Florida), it can’t swim across the world’s major oceans and it would be physically impossible for this endangered feline to accomplish such a bold feat. It traveled the world alright, and its inspiring journey began on social media. For being such an elusive animal, it could not escape the spotlight any longer when it made a decision to visit 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 in 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 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 candid 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, I knew I had an obligation to share his “once in a lifetime” encounter with the world. Little did I know, this photogenic porch panther from Southwest Florida would make it half way across the globe in a matter of hours.
Stories like this only come around so often, but I could not let my excitement cloud my judgement. 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 when deciding to move forward with the story, but in the end I determined the pros outweighed the cons. It brought national attention to an endangered species that desperately needed it. It also sparked an important discussion about habitat loss, which caused a 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 spoke louder than anything I could put into words. Thousands of users made “here kitty kitty” jokes and responded to the photo in a playful manner, but many others came to the realization that it could mean life or death for this panther or the species entirely.
As with any trending or viral story on social media, it faded quicker than it arrived. Local, state and national news outlets covered the story for their own editorial reasons. It was a unique picture to most, to others it made for a catchy headline, but 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 is fully behind a cause or client, don’t let anything stand in your way. Not even a panther.