Whether you live in a city or in the suburbs, it can be easy to forget that animals are almost always somewhere nearby. No matter what part of the world you live in, the critters native to that region have been there long before you—and it’s inevitable that you’ll run into them at some point.

Florida resident Phil Hendra was reminded of this fact one day when he got a surprise visit from a truly shocking guest on his front porch. He could not process that what he was seeing could possibly be real… and you’re about to see why.

Florida resident Phil Hendra had been enjoying a relatively lovely day. He and his three children—who ranged in age from six to 12—were visiting his father in East Fort Myers. It had all the makings of a pleasant day with family, but things quickly took a turn for the worse.

Phil Hendra / Facebook

While the whole family was spending time together inside of Phil’s parents’ house, Phil’s son, Philip Jr., noticed what he called a “funny dog” outside. Curious, Phil decided to get a look at the creature for himself. When he saw it, however, he nearly had a heart attack.

Once he took a peek outside, his jaw hit the floor. This was no dog at all. Phil backed away so he could grab his camera; he needed to capture the crazy encounter and share it with the world.

Outside the door, Phil spotted what initially looked like a cat. Although it wasn’t too uncommon to see some cats running around his neighborhood, this was no ordinary feline looking for some treats.

It was a panther. Phil thought he was safe behind the door of his parents’ home, so he kept snapping photos of the animal. That was when the noise from his camera caught the cat’s attention—and he panicked.

However, once he did get the cat’s attention, Phil could finally recognize that is was a Florida panther. This bad boys can grow up to seven feet long and they’re as predatory as any other big cat species. They are also definitely not to be messed with.

This type of big cat is native to Florida, and while panthers try not to interact with humans, they’re known to wander onto properties—especially if the homeowners have small pets. So, how did this porch-dwelling panther react to her unwanted paparazzo?

At first, the panther didn’t seem bothered. In fact, she hunkered down on the porch and stayed for about another 20 minutes. Why she chose this particular spot was anyone’s guess. Maybe she just appreciated the view?

See, the wild feline that made an appearance on Phil’s parents’ porch was known as a Florida panther — but it would be more specific to call her a cougar. She certainly was an impressive animal.

Then, just as suddenly as she appeared, the panther bid adieu and fled the porch—much to Phil’s relief. He called the sighting a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Luckily, the family was fortunate that Phil had his camera ready to share it with the world!

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See, the Florida panther earned the distinction of being named Florida’s state animal in 1982. Still, they are currently listed as “critically endangered” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “Red List.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Southeast Region / Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, researchers filed reports stating that there were just 160 Florida panthers living in the wild. While this seems like a pretty small number, it’s much higher than it was in the 1970s, when only 20 were thought to be living outside of captivity!

While Floridians are no strangers to wildlife, the experience that Phil was able to capture on camera was very rare. Even so, he was far from the only person to have a startling run-in with a big cat…

Eric Kilby / Flickr

Take this cyclist, for example. While on a scenic—yet otherwise ordinary—bike ride through the country in October 2015, he saw something partially obscured waiting in the tall grass…

If it wasn’t for the fact that the mysterious silhouette had started inching towards him, the cyclist may have never realized that he was in any sort of danger or that the creature was there in the first place!

That was when he realized that he was in the presence of a large mountain lion—also known as a puma or cougar, just like the animal Phil and his family spotted on their front porch in Florida.

Unlike Phil, who was able to easily observe the animal from the safety of his father’s house, this cyclist was right out in the open. He had nowhere to hide, and trying to flee might have prompted the mountain lion to give chase.

The mountain lion even started to let out a few low, intimidating growls, making no attempt to hide the fact that he meant business. In response, the unnamed cyclist tried making some loud noises in an attempt to drive the big cat away.

After that, the cyclist doubled down on his attempts to show confidence, going so far as to imitate the noises the mountain lion was making. Yet that only seemed to make the predator angrier as his growls transformed into aggressive snarls!

The cat seemed to realize he was no match for the cyclist, and he turned tail and left. Wild animals are unpredictable, it’s what makes them wild. Luckily, there are people who study their behavior to give us a little more insight into the animal kingdom.

Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti, an animal behaviorist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, has spent the last seven years or so studying Gir National Park’s lion population. It was all business as usual, until one particular lioness stood out from the rest.

Stotra Chakrabarti / ResearchGate

See, over the course of his studies, Dr. Chakrabarti got used to watching the lions constantly compete with the leopards for space and food, despite the fact that the park spans 545 square miles.

But in 2019, Dr. Chakrabarti noticed something peculiar about one lioness’ intentions regarding a blue-eyed baby leopard. She approached the baby in a rather gentle way. Was she sneaking up on the little one?

Dheeraj Mittal

What began as a mere interest soon became an interspecies adoption, as the lioness’ maternal instincts kicked in once she was around the fuzzy, two-month-old leopard cub. This contradicted seven years of research — and got Dr. Chakrabarti thinking.

Dheeraj Mittal

He expected that the odd curiosity would be short-lived, as a lioness in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area was once seen nursing a leopard cub, but the miraculous encounter only lasted about a day. They just weren’t meant to be family.

But the lioness at Gir National Park spent weeks protecting and nursing the leopard cub, even feeding him fresh meat from her hunt. Absolutely fascinated, Dr. Chakrabarti wondered what the long-term effects would be on the leopard.

Dheeraj Mittal

Well, the lioness’s two cubs showed the leopard baby the same love and affection as well. The siblings were seen playing together, with the two lion cubs, who were about twice the size of the leopard, even following the spotty adoptee up trees.

Amitayu Dey

Adorably, a photo shows the brave little leopard pouncing on the head of one of his new, larger, golden-hued brothers, who sweetly played along with the leopard cub’s shenanigans. The good sport clearly knew the role of a big brother and the annoyances that come with it!

“It looked like two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter,” Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti stated of the inter-species siblings. The doctor and his fellow researchers were still in awe of the improbable wild cat family. Surely, this would change the very makeup of the leopard.

Jessica Wade / The World-Herald

Dr. Chakrabarti stated that the bizarre affiliation “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across.” His fellow researchers, some of whom have observed the wild cats for decades, were astounded too and admitted they had “also not seen anything like this.”

Though you’ve likely seen cute animal friendship stories dispersed throughout the world of Facebook, it’s almost unheard of for known wild competitors to bond so easily. But perhaps it was their feline similarities that brought them together.

Dr. Chakrabarti explained that both big cat species’ social behaviors are quite similar in the early stages of life, such as the way they play, meow, and beg for milk. As they age, their traits diverge, of course.

Considering Asiatic lion mamas often separate from their pride for a few months to raise their newborn cubs alone, acting as tough single mothers, it makes sense that this particular Asiatic lioness was so welcoming to the leopard cub.

Chen Jianxing

If the rest of the pride, which is made up of uber-protective adult lions, were around to witness the leopard cub cuddling up to the lioness, they may have viewed the spotty outcast as an “impostor,” Stotra explained.

Ken and Michelle Dyball

But that theory was never tested, and sadly it never will be; after approximately 45 days spent under the care of his adoptive lioness mother, the leopard cub was found lifeless by a watering hole.

Paul A. Selvaggio

According to a field necropsy, the little leopard likely passed due to a femoral hernia he was born with. The researchers were heartbroken (as you probably are) over the fact that they’d never know how his life would’ve panned out among the lions.

Richard Brodzeller

“It would have been fantastic to see, when the leopard cub grew up, how things would be. But it didn’t happen,” said a somber Dr. Stotra. He was bummed from a scientific opportunistic standpoint, but was also undoubtedly emotionally attached to the unlikely feline family.

@StotraChakraba2 / Twitter

This heartwarming, one-in-a-million adoption story mimics certain qualities of past interspecies adoption instances in nature. Believe it or not, a group of capuchin monkeys completely embraced an infant marmoset in 2004!

Primate Care

Let’s not forget the family of bottlenose dolphins that fostered a baby melon-headed whale in 2014. So, how are these stories connected? Dr. Patrícia Izar, an associate professor at Brazil’s University of São Paulo, stated that all three incidents involved a lactating mother taking in a lonely baby.

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Considering hormonal changes caused by new motherhood are quite powerful, they “might facilitate bonding with an extraneous infant,” explained Patrícia. Nature and biology continue to amaze and bewilder us, just when we thought we had it all figured out.

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With the feline case specifically, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the cat camaraderie helping the leopard cub seamlessly meld with the lion clan. Both species are from the felidae family! It’s not as easy to understand interspecies relationship when they are completely different.

In 2016, Nandi the rhinoceros came into the world. She couldn’t have asked for a better life. She tore across the South African savanna with her mother, who protected her as she grew bigger and stronger. But one surprise threw her childhood off the rails.

One day, the two rhinoceroses noticed a vehicle approaching them from the distance. Neither had made contact with humans before, so they didn’t even think to run. That put them in more danger than they ever realized.

The car was full of bloodthirsty poachers, greedily searching for rhino horns to sell on the black market. The unsuspecting targets, Nandi and her mom, turned to face the hunters just as they opened fire.

Nandi fled just in time, though her mother didn’t survive. Just a few months old, the rhino had to survive in the middle of the harsh South African summer. She struggled to find food in the arid fields and could only hope she didn’t run into any predators.

Twitter / South Africa Tourism

After all, if the young rhinoceros stumbled into a pack of hyenas or lions, she wouldn’t have a prayer in defending herself — even if she returned to full strength. Nandi needed to find shelter or protection, and fast.

Becoming weaker and weaker by the day, it seemed like just a matter of time before another animal — or the elements — picked her off. A couple of weeks later, a strange creature did indeed spot Nandi.

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This time, fortunately, the animals watching Nandi weren’t predators. They were humans! And unlike the rhino’s last encounter, these people were not armed with weapons, but with medical supplies and food.

Sacred Lifestyle Magazine

They were a group of wildlife conservationists, led by a young woman named Jamie Traynor. Known as “The Rhinoceros Whisperer,” she immediately recognized that Nandi was malnourished. Jamie couldn’t just leave her there in the wilderness.

YouTube / StoryTrender

She and her team whisked Nandi back to their sanctuary, a place they called The Rhino Orphanage. While Nandi had a healthy appetite, food alone wasn’t restoring her vigor. She clearly required medical intervention.

The Orphanage’s doctor determined that Nandi had, in desperation, eaten sand out on the savanna. After studying the damage to her intestine, he took her into surgery to repair her digestive system.

Following her procedure, the rhinoceros looked frailer than ever. She slowly convalesced, wrapped up in bandages and medical tubing, but Jamie rarely left her side those few weeks.

One Green Planet

As the scars healed, Nandi began drinking more and more milk. That was a very good sign, since she was developing at the proper rate. Jamie could hardly wait to show Nandi the rest of the preserve.

Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation

Before long, the young conservationist had Nandi back up and running. The rhino was bounding about the African terrain with an energy she hadn’t had since her mother was alive.

YouTube / Paul Oxton

Nandi really seemed to bond with Jamie, too. She saw the human as a parental figure, even as Nandi surpassed the size of any human. But before long, the rhino formed an even more unlikely relationship.

Instagram / Jamie Traynor

While taking a drink of water one morning, Nandi noticed an unfamiliar reflection appear next to her. It was a ginger cat, totally unafraid of the hulking animal next to him! Jamie watched the two from a distance, so glad that Nandi finally met Mewie.

Mewie was a tomcat that Jamie and her colleagues had also rescued. The feline showed a curious penchant for befriending animals of all species — even the horse and parrot who also lived at The Rhino Orphanage.

Still, Mewie decided that Nandi would be her best friend of all. The mismatched pair went on walks every day — at least until the cat tuckered out — followed by long naps in the shade.

The Rhino Orphanage / Jaime Traynor

The Rhino Orphanage proved to be the perfect spot for Nandi to blossom into adulthood. By the spring of 2018, when Jamie and her team saw she was healthy and full-grown, they decided it was time for a change.

YouTube / Helping Rhinos

Nandi had to learn to survive in the wild before she lost her ability to adapt. With a tear in her eye, Jamie rolled back a section of the fence and set Nandi and another rhino named Storm back into the Savanna.

Though it was a difficult choice, Jamie could still keep tabs on Nandi’s progress thanks to an ankle tracker. Every time she came across the rhino thriving on her own, she knew all her hard work was worthwhile.

SAPeople

Thanks to heroes like Jamie, animals across the planet are coming back from the brink of death. Ellie the elephant, for instance, was just two weeks old, when a rescue team found her alone and afraid at the Bonamanzi Game Reserve in Hluhluwe, South Africa.

Elephants are naturally social creatures, but Ellie had been rejected by his herd. To make matters worse, it looked like the young elephant was also desperately ill. The rescue team quickly took Ellie to Thula Thula, a game reserve in Zululand, to be treated.

Ellie’s future didn’t look good. Veterinarians at the reserve diagnosed him with an infected umbilical hernia, a condition that is almost always fatal. The area around his belly button was essentially an open wound where the infection ran rampant.

Being shunned at any age can have devastating effects on an elephant, but being shunned while still an infant could destroy Ellie mentally and emotionally, even if he was healthy. The rescue team suspected the herd had shunned him because of his illness.

The rescuers treated Ellie’s dangerous medical condition and then tried to reunite him with his family. But try as they might, the herd was done with the little guy. Instead, the team decided to rear him themselves in the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage.

Then, the team faced another dilemma: the calf rejected all of his milk and formula! Eventually they came up with a combination of boiled rice, vital minerals, and coconut oil that finally seemed to tempt his palate enough…

The special dish worked! Soon, Ellie was gobbling it down along with the milk he needed for nourishment. His health was finally back on track, but it would take a lot more to help him recover from the trauma of being abandoned.

Ellie seemed perpetually lonely and sad even though he had a team of humans caring for him. “He wasn’t showing much interest in doing anything. He was very lethargic, very disinterested,” said Karen Trendle, a rehabilitation and crisis response expert.

That’s when the rescue team decided to try something wild. On the game reserve lived a German Shepherd named Duma. The retired police dog was known for his love of all creatures, so the team decided to take a chance and see what would happen if Duma was introduced to Ellie…

No one was sure how either animal would react once they were introduced. However, just moments after they met, it was clear that a serious friendship was on the rise. Duma was delighted with his new friend, and Ellie seemed social and happy for the first time!

It was as if meeting the dog brought Ellie back to life! For the first time, the young calf was expressing interest in something, and it was clear from Duma’s reaction that the feeling was totally mutual.

Before Ellie met Duma, the rescue team was worried about the little elephant’s future. They planned to introduce him to another herd or to have him start a herd of his own with other orphans, but they weren’t sure Ellie would survive, let alone thrive. Now, they finally had hope… but would it last?

With every month that passed, Ellie grew happier and more confident thanks to his burgeoning friendship with Duma the dog. It seemed that Ellie was out of the woods and that a happy future could exist for this young elephant. But, sadly, fate had other plans…

Just when it seemed that Ellie was out of the woods, the worst thing imaginable happened: the tiny elephant relapsed, collapsing in the enclosure where he slept. The rescuers responded the only way they could—they treated him with IV fluids and waited.

Tragically, just five months after Ellie seemed to recover, he passed away from a septic infection that caused the failure of all of his organs. The team was absolutely bereft to lose their little friend who came so far…

“It is with deep sadness and so many tears that we bring the devastating news that Ellie passed away gently shortly before midnight on Tuesday evening,” the team announced on their Facebook page. The entire community joined them in their grief.

Ellie’s brief life contained several hardships between his abandonment and his illness, but he also experienced great love and friendship in his time at the reserve. Duma the dog transformed Ellie’s life—and that wasn’t something that would be forgotten!

Tough times were not over for those who worked and lived on the game reserve. Just months after Ellie died, poachers invaded the land and killed a baby rhino while maiming other rhinos for their horns.

The staff at the reserve had to make a very tough decision, and they ultimately decided to close the game reserve. They opened a new one elsewhere, but its location remained a secret so as to better protect the animals who lived there.

While this story does not have the happy ending that you might wish it had, it’s important to remember that Ellie’s remaining time on Earth was pretty special—and it was all thanks to his unlikely friendship with Duma the dog! You can see how they played here…