“The next chapter is up to us.”
Those are the words that flash across the screen at the end of “Path of the Panther,” a nearly 90-minute film documenting the plight of the endangered Florida panther — and the effort to create a wildlife corridor to shield its habitat from development.
After five years, half a million images and 800 hours of camera-trap footage, acclaimed National Geographic Society photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and Emmy-winning director Eric Bendick are releasing “Path of the Panther” into theaters across the state.
They hope, by the end of the film, viewers will want to help write that next chapter.
The documentary, executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, gives a window into dwindling wild places in Florida and serves as a vehicle to build support for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a 17-million-acre network of land connecting wildlife through the state.
The film features true emblems of the Florida spirit: Indigenous people, panther veterinarians, ranchers and conservationists — all different walks of life coming together in the fight to protect the elusive panther.
Below: Watch the trailer for “Path of the Panther”
Floridians can see “Path of the Panther” in theaters before it releases on Disney+ and the National Geographic Channel this spring.
The film is premiering in dozens of theaters across Florida beginning this week. Ward and Bendick will lead a post-show discussion at the Tampa Theatre after the opening-night screening Friday and again on Sunday. They will host similar Q&A events in Maitland and Gainesville.
Tickets for those events and other Florida showings can be purchased at pathofthepanther.com/watch/
Ahead of the release, the Tampa Bay Times spoke with Ward and Bendick about the film. (The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
If there’s one message you hope the public — Floridian or otherwise — takes away from this film, what would it be?
CW: The whole purpose of the film is wanting to build the public and political will to save the Florida Wildlife Corridor. And that’s why I do this work. From an emotional standpoint, there’s no better emblem of the Florida Wildlife Corridor than the panther, because it’s a uniquely Florida animal. If we continue to act, we can save this corridor and give the panther a path to reclaim its territory.
EB: The greatest message the film offers is that we are in a moment of change — right now — where there’s still an opportunity, there’s still hope, and there’s still a real potential to return wildness and protect wildness in Florida. I personally think it’s not too late.
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One of the most shocking shots in the film was the ranchers on horseback with rows of newly built homes in the background. Were there other moments when creating this film when you felt the vulnerability of this remaining Florida wilderness?
CW: The vulnerability is right there all the time. At some of my most productive camera-trap spots, if you listen closely, you can hear the trucks and the cars still buzzing down the road while you’re standing in this primordial, wild place where alligators, bears and panthers are still living out their lives. The two worlds are stacked on top of each other.
What’s the best reaction to the film you’ve heard so far?
CW: I sense a lot of pride in Florida from people in the audience. And that’s super uplifting. But there’s also a lot of surprise and intrigue that this Florida still exists. And there’s now a lot of motivation to help.
EB: I always love when people tell me that they were moved to tears by the film. It’s hard to know if you’re making a difference, but when you get to hear that, you know people were reacting emotionally.
What’s the largest lesson you learned as you created “Path of the Panther”?
CW: This film clarified my purpose. Once I understood the power of the panther story to carry the Wildlife Corridor to a lot more Floridians, it was just a point of clarity and a point of hope — that if we could see this thing through, we could make a difference.
EB: When you’re pursuing an animal as rare and elusive as the panther, you have to know that this is a project that’s going to take over your life — for half a decade. Also the importance of working together as a team: It’s not just one person’s vision or one person’s idea. It’s all of our ideas.
What were some of the largest hurdles you had to clear to get the film across the finish line?
CW: For me, it was just how long it took to get enough content. Before you can share the story with the millions of viewers of National Geographic or Disney+, you have to get enough content. And you have to do that with an animal that I’ve only ever seen three times in my life in fleeting glimpses. It is completely reliant on camera traps. That was the hardest thing: The grind of the time spent. It was really hard for me, personally, to be away from my family that much.
EB: It’s not always the sexiest topic, but fundraising is a huge part of making a feature film. You’re constantly funding for that next few months or, in our case, few years. Every hurdle along the way you need more resources. That was a big challenge for us, and we have a huge community of supporters to thank.
The final words of the film are: “The next chapter is up to us.” What do you think comes next for the Florida Wildlife Corridor? What barriers exist in that next chapter?
CW: We’re on a good trajectory. I think year after year, our leaders will continue to hold the Florida Wildlife Corridor as a high bipartisan priority, as they have with the Everglades in recent years. So what’s next? Continuing to make the corridor a priority to protect. We’re on the right track, and I hope that this story of the panther can help keep us there. I think the biggest barrier is lack of awareness. Once you’re aware that these places exist, it’s a logical reaction to want to protect them.
EB: I see the Florida Wildlife Corridor as this giant Central Park throughout the entire state of Florida. Obviously it’s owned by many landowners and ranchers, but it could be a model for this huge, protected area that can’t be turned into subdivisions. I think if that happens, it’s going to inspire a huge movement across the whole United States.
What can our readers do to help?
CW: The immediate thing is to tell other people to watch the film and to share this story. We want as many Floridians as possible to see this story, because this is our Florida, and it’s a Florida that’s been overlooked and forgotten for too long. The next would be to go to pathofthepanther.com and click “Take Action.” There you can sign a pledge and join the movement. We will follow up with specific calls to action with our partner organizations as new threats and opportunities arise.
EB: For Florida residents, I’d say really follow along with the progression of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and get involved locally. And the bigger idea of the film is really about connectivity and connected landscapes. Those can be anything from small neighborhood parks, to the health of your own backyard, to a local greenway. You can get involved on so many different scales and create your own green oases — even in the middle of a city.