DAVIE, Fla. - As the Florida Panthers continue to work toward educating the local community on the importance of preserving their endangered namesake, one of the organization's best -- and furriest -- teaching tools can be found just a few miles up the road from their home arena.
At Flamingo Gardens, which is located about 15 minutes from BB&T Center in Davie, a juvenile panther named Buddy is helping teach both children and adults about the important role that his species plays in helping maintain a critical balance within the local ecosystem in South Florida.
"Seeing one is the greatest learning tool there is," said Michael Ruggieri, the director of the animal care department at Flamingo Gardens. "You can talk about them all you want, but until you see one up close and personal, it's when you really start to feel for them."
After being seized from an unlicensed residence by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Buddy has become an ambassador for his species at Flamingo Gardens, which welcomes 180,000 guests a year to its 70-acre wildlife sanctuary, aviary and botanical garden.
Of those guests, 35,000 are children visiting from local schools.
"Everybody needs to start early," Ruggieri said. "I remember when I was a kid I was supposed to be the one to save everything. We need to definitely educate the kids on protecting these animals and how important just the loss of one animal can magnify and affect so many different species, especially an animal like the Florida panther. They're an umbrella species in this area."
As an umbrella species, the Florida panther protects many other plants and animals that live in South Florida. At the top of the food chain, panthers not only keep feral hog numbers in check, but also make sure that deer, raccoon and other animal populations stay balanced and healthy.
But as their natural habitat continues to shrink, the Florida panther, which has been the state's official animal since 1987, has unfortunately become one of the most endangered mammals in the world. As of 2017, there were only 150-200 of them estimated to still be living in the wild.
With Buddy's help, Flamingo Gardens hopes more people will be alerted to this issue.
"What I love to do is bring him up to the front and talk to kids about what he does and why he's here," said Miranda Bivens, an animal care keeper at Flamingo Gardens. "It's great to talk to kids and get them as excited about seeing animals, just as excited as I know I was about seeing them when I was a little kid. It's important to show them around and tell them all about them."
Bivens said Buddy's precocious nature has already made him a favorite of visitors.
"He's the best cat in the world," she said. "I've worked with a lot of big cats, and these are the are largest cats that are able to purr, so he acts exactly like a little kitten. He loves when you sing to him. He actually loves Beyoncé, the Little Mermaid [soundtrack], anything like that."
As part of the organization's fifth-annual Panther Conservation Night, Flamingo Gardens will be honored as a Community Champion and presented with a check for $25,000 to help further its ongoing conservation efforts when the Panthers host the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.
Now in its fourth season, the Community Champions Grant Program, which is presented by Moss Construction and the Moss Foundation, awards $25,000 to a local 501(c)(3) organization or government agency serving the South Florida area at each of the team's 41 home games.
Started in 2016, the Panthers pledged to donate $5 million over a five-year span.
In addition to Flamingo Gardens, seven other organizations that contribute to conservation efforts will also be in attendance at Tuesday's game, including Zoo Miami, Palm Beach Zoo, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the FIU College of Arts, Sciences and Education, and the Museum of Discovery and Science.
Fans who download the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science Mobile Application will also be able to take part in an augmented reality educational experience while at the game.
You can read more about augmented reality and the museum's Panther Prowl Exhibit here.
"Anyone in the community can come out and learn about the Florida panther, its habitat and other species just like it" said Panthers Foundation Coordinator Danielle Jacobs. "It's a great opportunity to get educated and to come out and learn about our namesake."
"A priority of panther conservation is able to educate our fans on that call to action and let them know what they can do to support our efforts in the community. With their help, we can all make a difference in helping local wildlife through panther conservation efforts."