Backstory on saving the Florida panther takes many twists, turns

“Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle To Save The Florida Panther” by Craig Pittman
“Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle To Save The Florida Panther” by Craig Pittman

Colorful cast of characters involved in wild cat’s near demise and recovery

A journalist at the Tampa Bay Times, Craig Pittman is a first-rate environmental advocate. His well-argued and confrontational fifth book, "Cat Tale," investigates the decades-long struggle to save the Florida panther from its "extinction spiral." If it's been a "Wild, Weird Battle," as the book's subtitle proclaims, it's been a slow one fought on multiple fronts shrouded in political and scientific fog.

The heroes of Pittman’s book are the state’s lowly biologists, scruffy frontline warriors like Roy McBride and Melody Roelke, the “Turbo Vet.” They don’t always know what they’re doing, but they get the job done, as much as they can — given what they’re up against.

Like its cousin, the Texas cougar, the Florida panther is a puma subspecies. It has inspired obsession for centuries. Modern efforts dedicated to its preservation, well documented in “Cat Tale,” have led to bloodied reputations, career suicides and, in one tragic instance, the real thing.

Pittman reserves his harshest criticism for the hierarchy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and its policy of “drive through permitting,” as one whistleblower called it. The result was a massive elimination of panther habitat in Florida. “Cat Tale” poses the question: Who will regulate the regulators when they refuse to regulate?

Ideally, the panther’s “tawny” coat is well cut. Its back end is higher than its front, so it can leap vertically to an astonishing 15 feet. Pittman calls them “silent hunters, swift assassins, tenacious fighters.” Although there’s no record of one attacking a person, when it comes to small pets, all bets are off.

Pittman’s history of the puma includes Seminole legend and “panther panics.” “By the 1930s,” he recounts, “the state’s development had funneled the panthers into the southern part of the state into the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp.” Despite protective legislation, it looked like curtains for the big cat at the dawn of the ’70s. No one was even sure it existed.

Then, in 1973, a graduate student with a grant from the World Wildlife Fund brought in the cinematic Roy McBride, a legendary Texas cougar hunter. (His “face … looked like something carved out of stone.”) McBride, who was a source for Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “The Crossing,” becomes Pittman’s most delightful character, his rough exterior disguising his scholarly achievement.

After McBride tracked down an aging puma near Lake Okeechobee, confirming the species’ existence, panther visionary Chris Belden assembled a “capture team” to enter Big Cypress, the Florida panther’s last zone of battle.

Over the next several years, the team tranquilized treed cats with ketamine darts and attached radio-transmitting neckbands. (It came to be known as the “collar-and-foller” program.) As a consequence, biologists could study their movements via aerial surveillance and assess their true numbers, which were depressing.

A controversial captive breeding program failed, and the final option — to import a Texas cougar for “genetic restoration” — raised further ethical issues.

In Pittman’s summary, both captive breeding and genetic restoration represent “the ultimate intrusion of humans imposing their will on the fate of a wild creature, an attempt to engineer their reproduction to guarantee their future.” Moreover, a hybrid cat held the prospect of jeopardizing the Florida panther’s Endangered Species status.

But what choice was there? McBride was dispatched to Texas. Assisted by a blindfolded mule, he rousted cougars from crags and caves, securing them for shipment to Florida, where they were introduced in 1995 for mating with the state’s panther population. By the 2000s, the program had become a success. The cat’s numbers had begun to rise.

Pittman has written several books on environmental subjects, but he’s best known for the entertaining “Oh, Florida!” (2016), a riotous compendium of the “Gunshine State” stories that makes the peninsula seem like bedlam. His sharp eye for offbeat characters is also trained on “Cat Tale.” Reports of “flesh-eating beetles,” “primitive weapons enthusiasts,” and drug running “professional crabber cults” offer sub-tropical relief to often-weighty subject matter.

Pittman is a naturally jocose writer — in passing, he refers to Gainesville as a “Central Florida college town north of Orlando” — but he demonstrates an impressive command of factual intrigue, 50 years’ worth, clarifying his story’s maze of agencies and impact statements that are represented by more acronyms than the New Deal.

And he’s very good with forgotten events like Dade County’s “Jetport” folly in 1968. Projected to be “bigger than the nation’s four largest airports combined,” the jetport would have erased huge sections of Big Cypress and the panthers along with it. Astonishingly, President Richard M. Nixon canceled the boondoggle. The panther’s plight played a leading role in the decision.

“Cat Tale” is a bit of a rat tale, a fine morsel for gourmands of the usual suspects: Florida’s scheming developers, craven bureaucrats and bipartisan, backhanding politicians, but the book has a positive finish. With the puma population replenished somewhat, the first male panther crossed the Caloosahatchee River in the late ‘90, wandering north to the Orlando area and back again.

Their now-expanded range presents new challenges as they encounter mushrooming suburban development. Highway underpasses have been created, which have helped many endangered species, but what’s really needed is a protected wildlife corridor running north-south up the state, often over private land.

The pathway concept is the subject of an excellent 2012 documentary on YouTube, “Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee.” Conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who participated in the film and whose spellbinding puma images appear in the current “Nature Conservancy” online edition, told Pittman, “The biggest variable is human tolerance … If we can coexist with panthers, then panthers will survive.”


‘Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther’

by Craig Pittman

Hanover Square Press

336 pages, 27.99