Recently I led a group of new volunteers on a training session at the Cypress Dome Trails. My goal was to discuss our volunteer handbook and things to know as a new volunteer as well as engage in conversation so we could get to know each other.
I also wanted them to hike the Wild Coffee Trail, the section of the white trail that few people actually traverse. Why?
Most of the year it is wet. Very wet. And when it isn’t wet, it’s muddy. Not fun muddy, but suck-your-shoe-off-and-taunt-you muddy.
While we were hiking the easier part (after marker 10), I asked our volunteers, “What is the coolest wildlife sighting you’ve had?”
For almost everyone, the answer came very quickly and varied from mammals to reptiles to birds. I have two: a Great Horned Owl that flew very close to my husband and I while we were hiking and completely surprised us, and the Pink Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family that surprised us all by growing one summer in my grandmother’s garden at our cabin in Northern Michigan.
The most common answer, not surprisingly, was the Florida Panther.
A few in our midst had a story to tell about their panther sighting, and for the rest of us, we all expressed how seeing one was definitely on our bucket list.
I myself have yet to see one in real life. I did recently find tracks, right by our mailbox, and they were spectacular.
I sent the photos of the tracks to a volunteer who monitors game cameras near our office, and he emailed a photo taken the evening before I found the tracks of this handsome male panther.
On the short drive home that evening, I was thinking about my excitement and the possibility of seeing my first (living) panther. Surely I would see one soon since I saw the tracks and we have the panther on game camera.
It seems inevitable. Move to SWFL, and you are bound to see panthers. There are signs all over warning of panther crossings (and, no, panthers are not black – please help spread the word).
I’ve heard everything from locals who have waited their whole lives to see a panther to tourists who simply turned a corner in their car and saw one dart across the road.
One of my very wise volunteers often tells people on her guided walks that she has never seen a panther, even with the countless hours she spends outdoors volunteering with several local nonprofits. Her view is that, when the time is right, she will see a panther. She uses the word “honor,” as in, the panther will honor her patience with its presence.
And maybe that is how we should look at at all of our coolest wildlife sightings. Whatever we see, when we see it, it’s an honor.