ST. PETERSBURG — The first time I saw Florida's official state animal, it was dead.
Florida has a lot of state symbols. We have, to name a few, a state flower (orange blossom), a state butterfly (zebra longwing), a state shell (the horse conch), and even a state soil (Myakka fine sand). Picking new state symbols tends to keep our legislature busy and out of mischief. Not long ago our lawmakers got into a big snit over whether the state pie should be pecan or Key lime (Key lime won). Of course Florida has an official bird - no, not the construction crane; it's the mockingbird - as well as a state reptile, the alligator.
But only one critter can be called the official state animal, and that's the Florida panther. The state's schoolchildren selected it in a 1981 vote over the gator, the manatee, the Key deer, and a few others that got write-in votes, such as the dolphin and the baboon. Panthers are so popular they've become the mascot for dozens of schools, the namesake of the Miami pro hockey team, and the decoration on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, sold to pay for panther research.
Even as the panther's popularity was soaring, though, its population was going down the tube.
When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, some Florida officials were convinced panthers were already extinct. The World Wildlife Fund hired the world's greatest puma tracker, a terse, Stetson-hatted Texan named Roy McBride, to find at least one panther and prove they were still around. He did. Still, by the 1990s there were no more than 30 left prowling the swampy wilderness of South Florida. The population was so small that inbreeding among the survivors had created genetic defects, threatening to doom their future.
The biologists working on the panther problem were smart, dedicated people. One of them had tried to save a dying panther by giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which is the kind of total commitment to a job you seldom see in any profession.
They tried to set up a captive-breeding program. They plunged into the underbrush and caught a handful of panther kittens, intending to raise them in zoos and use them to create new, defect-free panthers. Then they discovered the kittens suffered the same genetic defects.
Then they came up with a desperate plan, something that had never been tried before. They dispatched McBride to capture eight female cougars from his home state and bring them back to Florida. Texas cougars are close cousins of Florida panthers, so their genetics match. McBride turned the female cougars loose in the wilderness, in the hopes they would breed with the remaining resident male panthers and refresh the gene pool.
Against all odds, it worked, producing kittens free of genetic defects. Even better, the cougars combined with the panthers to create a little population boom. At last count there are now between 100 and 160 panthers - still not a lot, but more than before.
There's only one problem: While they were saving the panthers, nobody was saving the panthers' habitat. Lots of new homes, stores, offices, roads and golf courses - even a new town centered on a new university campus - sprawled into what had been wilderness. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were repeatedly pressured by their bosses to say yes to every development project for fear the developers would complain to Congress. They had to use bogus science to make it look good. When one blew the whistle, he was fired.
Because of the lost habitat, there are now more panthers than ever before squeezed into a smaller area than ever before. Male panthers are very territorial, so young ones have to either fight to the death or flee. Some go a long way looking for a mate - which they don't find, because the females tend to stay closer to where they were born.
That's how one of the males wound up on Interstate 4 just outside Tampa, some 200 miles north of the swampy wilderness where they live. Interstate 4 is the main east-west highway across the Florida peninsula, the road millions of families drive to get to Disney World. As the panther raced across the asphalt, a westbound vehicle crushed its skull, and the driver kept going.
The death marked the first confirmed panther sighting in that area in 30 years. It was also the first one I ever saw, its sleek, tawny fur matted with blood.
Panthers tend to be nocturnal animals, seldom seen by humans. But as more and more people crowded into the panthers' habitat, the panthers began showing up in the suburbs. Unable to find the deer and hogs that usually are their prey, they began gobbling up pets and livestock. One homeowner stumbled across a panther in his backyard, chewing on one of his chickens, and it didn't want to let go.
"Maybe," the homeowner said later, "it thought I was the intruder."
One federal official told me that what's left of panther habitat isn't really a wilderness any more. Instead, it's "a zoo without walls." Between tracking them with radio collars and tinkering with their genetics, he said, "we manage all the panthers."
And that makes them the perfect symbol for Florida, where we so often treasure adroit fakery far more than anything real.
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian and an award-winning reporter who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.