It's not yet clear to us who started it, but state Representative William "Bill" Bankhead and Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington were there at the beginning. From 1981, they each played a major role in the process to name an official state animal for the State of Florida.
In late 1981, Rep. Bankhead pre-filed a bill that would propose to the upcoming 1982 legislative session that the polar bear be adopted as the official state animal of Florida.
Mr. Turlington, involved in education, thought that student participation in a statewide "election" of a preferred state animal would be a great learning experience.
Mr. Turlington organized, monitored, and completed a state animal poll of children across Florida, the results of which were submitted to the Florida Legislature for their consideration.
Rep. Bankhead was responsible for guiding the state animal bill through the Legislature.
Here’s where the polar bear came in. Rep. Bankhead wasn't really serious about naming the polar bear the official state animal of Florida, though he had plenty of fun with the idea. The polar bear, stipulated by the bill, only served as a place-holder until the results of the state animal "election" could be tabulated. Once all the state animal votes were in, Ralph Turlington was to submit a full report to the Legislature with the goal of amending the pre-filed bill to make the children’s choice the official animal of the state.
The election process began with a December 11, 1981 deadline for completion.
Ballots were sent, with small informational packets, to public and private schools across the state. The ballots offered four official state animal candidates; the alligator; the manatee; the Key deer; and the Florida panther.
Interestingly, the manatee being offered as the official animal of the state already held the title of Florida's official state marine mammal.
In addition to the four official state nominees, the ballots also offered a write-in option, where students could log a vote for an animal of their choice.
The results of the balloting? Over half a million ballots were cast! The Florida panther was the clear winner garnering 211,729 votes.
The manatee followed the panther, in second place, with the alligator and the Key deer placing third and fourth respectively.
A surprisingly large number of write-in votes were cast.
Write-ins included votes for the dolphin, turtle, monkey, opossum, camel, salamander, rabbit, and others, including the rattlesnake. [ 1 ]
With the Florida panther the overwhelming favorite of the students, the Florida panther took the polar bear’s place in Representative Bankhead’s bill and the rest is history.
The following information was excerpted from the The 2008 Florida Statutes, Title 4, Chapter 15, Section 15.0353.
TITLE IV EXECUTIVE BRANCH
CHAPTER 15 SECRETARY OF STATE
15.0353 Official state animal. --The Florida panther is hereby designated and declared as the official Florida state animal.
History.--s. 1, ch. 82-61.
"Polar Bear Florida’s State Animal?." Observer-Reporter [Washington] 04 August 1981, D3. Print.
"Turlington wants students to vote on what will be state animal." Ledger [Lakeland] 21 October 1981, 2B. Print.
[ 1 ] Williams, Darlene. "Panther Local Leader As The State Animal." Star-Banner [Ocala] 11 December 1981, 2A. Print.
Journal Staff Writer. "Panther wins student election for state animal." Sarasota Journal 21 December 1981, 3-A. Print.
The 2008 Florida Statutes. SOURCE:SUBNAMEIFAPP. 2009. 3 April 2009 <http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?Mode=View%20Statutes&Submenu=1&Tab=statutes>
Shearer, Benjamin F. and Barbara S. State Names, Seals, Flags and Symbols: A Historical Guide Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 3 Sub edition, 2001.
Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi): National Wildlife Foundation's eNature.com field guide.
Florida Panther Net: All about Florida's state animal, the elusive endangered Florida Panther.
Florida Panther: Friends of the Florida panther website.
Florida Panther: Defenders of Wildlife website.
Puma concolor coryi Florida Panther: The Encyclopedia of Life.
Puma concolor coryi (Florida Panther): The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web.
Puma concolor coryi - (Bangs, 1896), Florida Panther: A network connecting science with conservation - NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life.
Puma concolor coryi (Bangs, 1899) : Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) Here you will find authoritative taxonomic information on plants, animals, fungi, and microbes of North America and the world.
State Animals: Complete list of official state animals.
More symbols & emblems: Complete list of official Florida state symbols.
Florida Panthers: Struggle for Survival, by William Caper. 32 pages. Bearport Publishing (July 31, 2007) Reading level: Ages 4-8. In Florida Panthers: Struggle for Survival, children relive the inspiring and heroic efforts of people who stepped in to save this remarkable creature when all seemed lost. Through this true tale of wildlife survival, readers discover the bold and creative ideas that Americans and their government have used to protect and care for the country's endangered wildlife.
The Florida Panther: Life And Death Of A Vanishing Carnivore, by David Maehr. 278 pages. Island Press; 1 edition (September 1, 1997) David S. Maehr served as project leader of the Florida Panther Study Project, helping to gather much of the later, surprisingly positive data. In The Florida Panther, he presents the first detailed portrait of the animal-its biology, natural history, and current status-and a realistic assessment of its prospects for survival.
Swamp Screamer: At Large with the Florida Panther, by Charles Fergus. 224 pages. University Press of Florida; 1st edition (February 1, 1998) The Florida panther is an endangered species, its way of life altered by the spread of suburban culture across the state. In Swamp Screamer, Charles Fergus tracks the fifty or so panthers that survive in Florida, vividly describing the people trying to save these remarkable creatures -- including wildlife biologists trying to preserve panther habitat and radical animal lovers who regard the panther as a symbol of their crusade on behalf of nature.
The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald. 480 pages. Simon & Schuster (March 27, 2007) The Everglades was once reviled as a liquid wasteland, and Americans dreamed of draining it. Now it is revered as a national treasure, and Americans have launched the largest environmental project in history to try to save it. The Swamp is the stunning story of the destruction and possible resurrection of the Everglades, the saga of man's abuse of nature in southern Florida and his unprecedented efforts to make amends.
The Best of: Florida Panthers, [ DVD ] Big cats have inhabited Florida for thousands of years. There is now an effort to save the few remaining panthers. This video is the story of Florida's captive breeding program.