Berkreviews Path of the Panther

If there is a documentary Floridians should watch this year, it is Path of the Panther. The film follows a few different threads, but it is mainly centered around Carlton Ward Jr, who is a National Geographic Explorer and photographer, as he tries to capture images and video of the Florida Panther in the Everglades. His ambitions are revealed to be more than just images –  he believes the images can help the endangered animal and its wildlife corridor. 

The urgency created in the film starts early, as we see a dead panther on the side of the road and are told it’s the third one that week. We meet Dr. Lara Cusack, a panther veterinarian – whose story arc is one of the most emotionally satisfying – as she helps retrieve the body. Carlton is joined by Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee Everglades educator, and airboat captain, as he goes to check and set up camera traps. These traps are motion-detecting camera traps, which allow him to capture wildlife photos. This setup will be a recurring element of the film that also allows for some incredible images and videos of various Everglades wildlife. 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) veterinarian Lara Cusack examines a young male panther killed by a vehicle on a busy six-lane road in the suburbs of eastern Naples, in an area where houses and shops have recently replaced forests. The panther was collected for a necropsy. (Carlton Ward)

The two panthers who get the most screen time are Babs and Tres. Tres is an accident victim that Dr. Cusack treats and helps to rehabilitate. Named for the number of broken legs, Tres’ story is one of hope. Babs offers the other side of hope as a female panther pushing into untapped potential habitats for the panthers. The various people in the film are looking to help protect both the animals and their habitat. While one may think this would be an easy argument to win, it seems that both man and nature oppose the goals of the film’s protagonists. 

During the documentary’s filming, Hurricane Irma comes through the very area where the film is centered. Also looking to cut straight down the middle of the Everglades is a new toll road. The film spends time with both of these aspects and manages to emphasize the constant struggle to help keep these animals a part of our ecosystem. A lot of ground is covered in this film, and it is easy for the audience to find themselves motivated to spread awareness.

For those who inherently want to protect nature, there is quite a bit of information offered to further fuel the flames of inspiration. However, if you’re simply into nature documentaries for the beautiful imagery, you’ll find much to enjoy. There are many laughs, audible sighs, and tears to be had while watching Path to the Panther. Film critics often find reasons to champion a movie, but few manage to move past the film and have us champion the topic covered by it. This is one of the latter. 

Path of the Panther is playing in theaters now. However, if it’s not near you, it’ll air on National Geographic on April 22, 2023 (Earth Day), and will be streaming this April on Disney +.

Rating: Must See.

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