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Helping Panthers Through Trail Therapy

Steve Fugate is practicing trail therapy. After losing his son to suicide and daughter to an accidental overdose, the Vero Beach, Florida native started walking to escape his pain. But walking in nature did more than provide an escape, it taught him lessons about grief, healing and mental health. He’s using this wisdom to help others, both those he meets on the trail and through his book Love Life Walk.

Steve’s first walk was the Appalachian Trail in 1999, during which he learned of his son’s death. After flying home to say goodbye, he threw himself into finishing the trail. The focus of planning and completing his goal in honor of his son helped him keep moving forward, both figuratively and literally. While out on the trail, he found solace and liberation in the wild; he was free to grieve whenever and however he needed.

Now Steve is directing the focus of his walk to raising funds for the endangered Florida panther. “In 1970 I learned there were 22 left, and I was immediately committed to helping,” he said. Thanks to all his time in nature, he’s seen two panthers in their natural habitat. And he’s witnessed one of the greatest threats to their survival: Florida drivers. In the last several years he’s had near misses from distracted drivers; car collisions contribute to more panther deaths than any other cause, including the recently discovered neuromuscular disease feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) that’s also affecting Florida bobcats.

His latest walk started on January 30, 2021 from Vero Beach to Key West, then up the west coast of Florida from Naples to Tallahassee, traipsing through land that used to be populated with thousands more panthers than the 120-230 left. Along his way, Steve will be stopping at bookstores to share his story and passion for panthers; a percentage of both book sales and donations will be sent to the Foundation’s Florida Panther Fund. The fund supports the study of FLM along with the rehabilitation and release of injured panthers and the protection of panthers’ dens and kittens.

At 74 with 47,000 miles and eight crossings of the country, Steve is still practicing trail therapy. The “Love Life” sign over his head attracts others whose hearts might also need mending through conversation and recognition of a shared pain. And thanks to his dedication, the Florida panther will now benefit from his journeys.

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