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Urban Wildlife Cameras: A secret window into the animal world of Florida

Urban wildlife cameras helping humans and animals coexist
Panthers captured on urban wildlife cameras.
Posted at 4:41 AM, Nov 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-02 18:49:32-04

ESTERO, Fla. — The technology is simple, a motion-activated camera in a box, but the results are extraordinary. Wildlife cameras placed in backyards across Florida are helping shape how to protect and co-exist with our most loved creatures.

Imagine sitting out on your back patio and seeing a bear, panther, or family of river otters. One Florida homeowner gets to do that every day, well, sort of. All those animals have traveled through Lucas Eastham's backyard, but he sees them in digital images and video recorded from two trail cameras.

Consider yourself extremely lucky if you have ever seen a Florida panther in person, not at a zoo. Often called ghost cats, the panther is elusive and avoids interactions with humans as much as possible. But trail cameras are giving us a glimpse into their lives.

"It's validating, knowing that the panthers are there," Lucas Eastham said.

Eastham is a homeowner in the Preserve at Corkscrew in Estero. His patio overlooks the preserve. In 2020, he got a letter asking if he would be willing to place wildlife cameras in his backyard for the fStop Foundation and Florida Wildlife Federation for their Sharing the Landscape Program.

Eastham has two cameras in his yard and downloads data from a dozen others across the community.

"It's really neat to see on the cameras the different wildlife that we're having come through the area; our one camera right here on our oak tree has a nice vantage point," Eastham said.

He continued, "My daughter is four, but she goes out with me to pull the data from the cameras. And so she puts her gloves on, I put my gloves on, she gets in there, there are ants, there are frogs that jump out. And then she'll join me on the computer to see what sort of wildlife we are seeing in our yard. We can see anything from alligators crossing through. We've seen bears, we've seen coyotes, we've seen Panthers. And, of course, lots and lots of deer, we have to filter through all the deer shots sometimes. And then the fun ones are like when a turkey will come strutting by the camera for a little change of pace."

More than a dozen volunteers, like Eastham, are working with thefStop Foundation and Florida Wildlife Federation. To date, 25 cameras are in Lee, Collier, and Orange County. If they can get more homeowners involved, that means more cameras and a clearer picture of where wildlife is heading and where they've been.

"When we have a homeowner that is willing to put a camera in their yard just at that level, that's fantastic. When I have a homeowner like Lucas, who is willing to do that and wants to participate, wants to go out and collect the data. It's just so humbling to know that there are people out there that really care," Meredith Budd, Regional Policy Director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said.

Budd said the cameras are already impacting new developments in a good way.

"The Florida Wildlife Federation, along with other environmental nonprofits in the area, worked with Wildblue to incorporate wildlife corridors through their development that would connect to corridors within this development here that we're standing at, The Preserve Corkscrew," Budd said. "And with that, there was a developer-funded wildlife crossing that is actually being constructed right now on Corkscrew Road in between these two developments. So that wildlife crossing will help facilitate movement."

A few months into volunteering for the program, Eastham downloaded a video in Oct. 2020 that captured the essence of what it is like to live in Florida with dangerous wildlife.

Man saves puppy from alligator

The viral video of a man ripping open a five-foot alligator's mouth to save his 7-week-old puppy named "Gunner."

"That was the first time I met him, and he said, 'by the way, you might see a gator getting my dog in the video,'" Eastham recalled Richard Wilbanks saying as he went to download the video.

"I didn't actually see when the gator grabbed him," Wilbanks told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska. "But, I heard him and heard a splash. I just without thinking, just instinct. I just jumped in the water and caught up with the alligator and then got him back up to the bank and kneeled down, you know, got straddled over him and just pried his mouth open and you know, and that was difficult. I'll tell you what, now those things. They say it's easy to close their mouth and hold it closed, but that getting their mouth open. Oh gosh. My adrenaline was pumping, and it took all my strength by hand open that alligator's mouth."

Gunner is now two years old and happily ran around the house barking at us as Wilbanks talked about the attack.

"If it had been any bigger. I would have never been able to have gotten Gunner out," Wilbanks said.

"Do you think that their program has an impact has had an impact on how we're starting to connect the lands and different preserves from neighborhood to neighborhood?" Paluska asked.

"Oh, absolutely. I think that's been one of the most wonderful things we've been able to support in our neighborhood because the area is starting to build up so much that we're losing a lot of the wildlife."

"Are you glad there's video of it to this day?" Paluska asked.

"Yes. You know, it brought a tremendous amount of publicity. But you know, I got so many letters and calls from children drawing pictures of the gunner and writing and asking about him. It was just what could have been a terrible experience turned in to be just a wonderful experience," Wilbanks said.

"Did you feel any guilt knowing that your house is built on a preserve that used to be the home for these animals ?" Paluska asked Eastham.

"I hadn't felt guilt at the time. But, since moving here and seeing all the development in the area, I've definitely felt guilty about that and seeing 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 preserves and wildlife corridors is a comforting fact knowing that it's not going just to be completely closed off. It comes from not only a public education standpoint but also from a policy and government education standpoint to make sure that this is a known issue and that folks should be aware of the risk of land development, but the strategies that we can put in place to solve some of our concerns."