Ricky Pires

Wings of Hope/Panther Posse Director Ricky Pires founded the environmental education program at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2000 and has educated thousands of elementary and college-age students about conservation.

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Ricky Pires
The ‘big cat’ lady

Panther Posse boss Ricky Pires knows that her work teaching fourth and fifth graders about conserving natural resources and protecting wildlife works. “I’ll run into them with their families at Walmart and the mom will say, ‘Oh, yes, we turn off the water when we’re not using it, now.’”

Her little ambassadors get their first lessons in panther biology, go hiking (“90 percent have never been on a hiking trail,” she says), and learn to identify Florida panther tracks and how the animal “dates” and “goes grocery shopping.”

It’s all part of the Florida Gulf Coast University Environmental Humanities curriculum and service learning requirement called Wings of Hope. University students teach Lee and Collier county public and private elementary school students about the “umbrella species” – the Florida panther – because protecting it involves protecting its terrain and the other wildlife on it.

Pires began as a volunteer for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, graduated from FGCU, and convinced the administration this program was needed.

As for her environment on the second floor of FGCU’s Reed Hall, it’s like a trip behind the wardrobe into Narnia. It’s a jungle in there, and Pires is right at home.