Reannah Hollaway was hesitant to put the piece of raw chicken in her hand.
“It feels gross,” she said.
But as she brought the chicken toward the fence and a Florida panther gently took it, a big smile came across her face.
“Wow, I just fed a panther!”
Lauren Scott was up next and was blown away the Florida native cat not only took the food but gave her a “high-five”.
“Amazing,” she said.
These encounters were part of a special Wild Wishes® project at Bear Creek Feline Center in Panama City, Fla.
Wild Wishes® grants wildlife encounters for children who have a terminal or critical illness or have lost a parent or sibling. It’s a project of Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center® based out of Pinehurst, TX (Orange area).
Since 2014 the organization has granted 92 of these wishes and also works with children in the foster system and families who have children struggling with various issues.
“This was a very special encounter because these two girls have been part of our program for a year and a half. They are both volunteering as interns this summer, and this was the big send-off before college classes begin. We have been teaching them how to promote wildlife conservation, and this is an incredible inspiration for them,” said Lisa Moore, co-founder of Wild Wishes® and Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center®.
The other co-founder, her husband Chester is an award-winning wildlife journalist and said the story here is the ability to learn about wild cats so intimately.
“These girls got to interact with Siberian lynxes, Florida panthers, bobcats and servals and each time Jim and Bertie Broaddus educated them about these great animals and their place in the wild,” Moore said
“Since coming into our program Reannah changed her major to wildlife conservation and Lauren is getting an education degree to become an elementary teacher. We believe they will have a major impact on wildlife and wildlife education in the future and a catalyst for that will be these experiences.”
Bear Creek Feline Center is one of the few facilities in America to house jaguarundis.
Sometimes called the “otter cat” because unusual, low-profile look, these cats were of particular interest to the girls and they spent extended time photographing them.
“The photos will be used for future writings and social media activity where we will not only mention this great facility but also the conservation status of jaguarundis, which is a bit mysterious. We think featuring them will be an engaging way to educate people about wild cats in the Americas,” Chester said.
Safe, interactive wildlife encounters are crucial to inspiring people to appreciate wildlife and become advocates for species and habitat conservation.
“We’re appreciative of our partners at Bear Creek Feline Center for helping us take our mentoring program to a new level and for in a big way make Wild Wishes® come true for some special young ladies,” Lisa said.
In a technology-driven world where man seems to get more disconnected to nature by the day, opportunities like this can cause one to pause and ponder Creation.
Sure, the girls might have been taking cell phone photos of the cats and posting to Instagram, but they exposed people to wildlife in inspiring fashion in the process.
That’s a win for wildlife and young people facing challenges alike.