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Imperiled species become 'political animals'

Florida ranks fourth in the nation for the number of species classified as endangered, including some of the state's most iconic creatures. But the efforts to manage the animals' population have often turned these mammals, birds, fish and reptiles into political animals.

FLORIDA PANTHER: State and federal agencies let thousands of acres of habitat for the state animal, the Florida panther, be wiped out by homes, stores, offices, even college campuses, meanwhile blocking their own scientists from objecting. Now pet owners and cattle ranchers complain that the panthers in their neighborhoods are preying on livestock and domestic animals rather than deer and hogs.

ROSEATE SPOONBILL: One of the oddest-looking creatures in Florida, the spoonbill is doing well everywhere — except in Florida Bay. Poor water management in the Everglades and loss of habitat in the Keys has sent their numbers into a downward spiral.

FLORIDA MANATEE: Every year manatees lose habitat to waterfront development and every year scores of them are maimed or killed by speeding boats. This year hundreds died amid the pollution in Indian River Lagoon, leaving politicians from Gov. Rick Scott on down scrambling for a solution to a longstanding problem.

AMERICAN CROCODILE: Florida is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist —but when crocs wander away from their South Florida refuge, they are not welcome. One that showed up at a Naples golf club was removed at the request of the residents, while one that laid eggs in the Keys was killed under suspicious circumstances this year.

BLACK BEAR: State wildlife officials took the black bear off their imperiled species list in 2011, pointing out the population had topped 2,000 — nine years before. If the number continues rising, state officials say they could bring back bear-hunting, a practice the state banned in 1994.

KEY DEER: Smaller than more common types of deer, these deer live only in the Keys — where a federal court ruled that by offering low-cost flood insurance, federal officials were illegally allowing too much development in the endangered animals' habitat. Their biggest cause of death: Being run over by speeding motorists.

SCRUB JAY: A single National Rifle Association lobbyist has twice defeated petitions by schoolchildren to declare the scrub jay the official state bird. Meanwhile environmental groups threaten to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for handing off to state wildlife officials responsibility for protecting the habitat of scrub jays and other imperiled species.

About these photographs

I decided to make portraits of threatened animals with a portrait set-up I normally use to photograph people. Why? I wanted to bring these species closer to you with the hope you may feel closer to them.

So I dragged a black backdrop and studio lights to Nature's Classroom in Hillsborough, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Inc., Archbold Biological Station, and Gatorama. We set the backdrop and the lights up where the animals might get comfortable with them and waited. Eventually they wandered over, got used to all the new stuff, and with enough patience, they got curious about us.

We hope you lock eyes with them, because how we perceive them, what our lawmakers decide to do with them, what we do with the land they live on and how we all treat the natural world around us matters to these guys, and ultimately to us all.

John Pendygraft

Imperiled species become 'political animals' 09/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 12:35pm]

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