ESTERO, Fla. – The technology is simple, a motion-activated camera in a box, but the results are extraordinary. Wildlife cameras placed in backyards throughout Florida contribute to how we can protect and coexist with our most beloved creatures.
Imagine sitting on your back patio and seeing a bear, a panther, or a family of river otters. A Florida homeowner has to do this every day, well, sort of. All of these animals have traveled through Lucas Eastham’s backyard, but he sees them in digital images and video captured by two wildlife cameras.
You’re lucky if you’ve ever seen a Florida panther in person, not in a zoo. Often referred to as a ghost cat, the panther is elusive and avoids interactions with humans as much as possible. But trail cameras give us a glimpse into their lives.
“It’s a validation to know the Panthers are there,” said Lucas Eastham.
Eastham is a homeowner at the Preserve at Corkscrew in Estero. Its terrace overlooks the reserve. In 2020, he received a letter asking if he would be willing to put trail cameras in his backyard for the fStop Foundation and the Florida Wildlife Federation for their Sharing the Landscape program.
Eastham has two cameras in his backyard and downloads data from a dozen others in the community.
“It’s really nice to see on the cameras the different wildlife we’ve brought through the area; our only camera here on our oak tree has a nice vantage point,” Eastham said.
He continued: “My daughter is four but she takes me outside to get the data from the cameras. And so she puts on her gloves, I put on my gloves, she comes in there, there are ants, there are frogs, they jump out. And then she will join me at the computer to see what kind of wildlife we see in our garden. We can see everything from alligators passing through. We’ve seen bears, we’ve seen coyotes, we’ve seen panthers. And of course lots and lots of deer, we sometimes have to filter through all the deer shots. And then the funny ones are like when a turkey comes strutting in front of the camera for a little change.
More than a dozen volunteers, like Eastham, work with the fStop Foundation and the Florida Wildlife Federation. To date, 25 cameras are located in Lee, Collier and Orange counties. If they can get more homeowners involved, that means more cameras and a clearer picture of where wildlife is going and where it’s been.
“When we have a homeowner who is willing to put a camera of this level in their backyard, that’s fantastic. If I have a homeowner like Lucas who is willing and wants to get involved, go out and collect the camera data. It’s just so humbling to know that there are people out there who genuinely care,” said Meredith Budd, Florida Wildlife Federation’s regional policy director.
Budd said the cameras are already positively influencing new developments.
“The Florida Wildlife Federation, along with other environmental nonprofits in the area, have been working with Wildblue to incorporate wildlife corridors into their development that connect to corridors within this development where we stand, The Preserve Corkscrew,” Budd said. “And with that, there was a developer-sponsored Animal Crossing that’s being built right now between those two developments on Corkscrew Road. So that deer crossing will help ease movement.”
A few months after volunteering for the program, Eastham downloaded a video in October 2020 that captured the essence of what it’s like to live in Florida with dangerous wildlife.
Man saves puppy from alligator
Viral video of a man opening the mouth of a 5-foot alligator to save his 7-week-old pup, Gunner.
“That was the first time I met him, and he said, ‘By the way, you could see an alligator getting my dog in the video,'” Eastham recalled saying to Richard Wilbanks when he took the video downloaded.
“I didn’t really see when the alligator grabbed him,” Wilbanks told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska. “But I heard him and heard a splash. I just did without thinking, just instinctively. I just jumped in the water and caught up with the alligator and then brought him back to shore and knelt down, you know, spread him and just opened his mouth and you know, and that was difficult. I’ll tell you what, now these things. They say it’s easy to close your mouth and keep it shut, but it’s easy to open your mouth. Oh God. My adrenaline was pumping and it took all my strength to open this alligator’s mouth with my hand.”
Gunner is now two years old and was happily running around the house barking at us while Wilbanks talked about the attack.
“If it was bigger. I never would have gotten Gunner out,” Wilbanks said.
“Do you think your program will have any impact on how we begin to connect the country and the different protected areas from neighborhood to neighborhood?” asked Paluska.
“Oh, absolutely. I think that was one of the most wonderful things we’ve been able to support in our neighborhood because the area is developing so badly that we’re losing a lot of wildlife.”
“Are you glad there’s a video of it to date?” asked Paluska.
“Yes. You know, it’s gotten a tremendous amount of publicity. But you know, I got so many letters and phone calls from kids who drew and wrote pictures of the shooter and asked about him. It was just what could have been a horrible experience, just a wonderful experience,” Wilbanks said.
“Did you feel guilty knowing that your home was built on a reservation that used to be home to these animals?” Paluska asked Eastham.
“I didn’t feel guilty at the time. But since moving here and seeing all the development in the area, I’ve definitely felt guilty and seen some of the land use and land intensification in the area,” Eastham said.
He continued, “But at least knowing that some of the developers are providing reserves and wildlife corridors is reassuring knowing it won’t be closed entirely, just from the state education standpoint to ensure this is a known problem.” and that people should be aware of the risk of land development, but the strategies we can use to address some of our concerns.