Young students climb into a panther den. They clutch a tiny spotted panther kitten on their laps and learn a huge menu of facts about the severely endangered species.
The den is an actually a large tent and the kittens are stuffed animals, but the replica of nature brings the lessons to life at Florida Gulf Coast University. About 2,000 fourth-grade students from Lee and Collier counties have visited FGCU this fall to experience the panther room.
Besides the panther den, they have visited five other stations to learn about animal tracks, panther tracking radio collars, the importance of conserving water, general panther facts and information about other creatures that share the habitat with Florida panthers.
Ricky Pires, director of the FGCU Wings of Hope program, has been putting this event together for 10 years. For seven years she visited each school to teach the lessons. For the past couple of years she’s had a temporary room at FGCU. But this year finally with a room of her own, she can transform the place into panther habitat, making the experience bigger and better than ever.
“We can bring in a lot more things,” Pires said. “I can do all those big photos. I have all the TVs and PowerPoint’s. It’s so much more professional.”
Jamie Pelletier, a Wings of Hope assistant, said there’s another benefit to bringing the children to campus.
“They get to see the campus,” Pelletier said. “We get to show them everything here. They are excited to come here and learn.”
The youngsters say they do learn a lot on the trip.
“I knew panthers were endangered, but I didn’t know there were only 100 left,” said Jacob Davis, a fourth-grader from Pinewoods Elementary School in Estero. “It’s really important to protect their habitat.”
“A panther’s habitat is equivalent to five Disney Worlds,” added his classmate, Hailey Sells, who was amazed at how much land just one panther needs to survive.
The students are required to tell at least two family members what they learned. Pires hopes that the children’s messages will help spread the word even more.
“I’ll tell my mom about the collars put on them,” said Rebecca Neal, another Pinewoods student.
“I’m going to tell my mom about how they get their prey,” added Logan Miano.
Jill Whitewood, a fourth-grade teacher at Pinewoods, said the lessons learned in the panther room are ones the students will really remember.
“This is amazing,” Whitewood said. “I want them to learn why it’s so important to conserve water and protect wildlife because they will not protect things if they do not love and understand it.”
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