If you are very lucky, and you are not a toy poodle or a deer, and if you spend any time at all in the Florida outdoors, you may be in for a treat some day soon: the sight of a panther in its natural element.
By his reckoning, Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman has laid eyes on Florida panthers exactly three times. “The first one I ever saw was dead, run down by a speeding vehicle on Interstate 4, closer to Walt Disney World than to the place where panthers normally are found,” he writes in Cat Tale. The second was in a roadside zoo, and the third was a taxidermic specimen in the State Archives in Tallahassee — a specimen that plays an important part in his narrative.
“That’s three more panthers than most Floridians have ever seen,” Pittman reckons, even if only one of the cats was actually alive.
There’s a reason for that. The panther — called puma, mountain lion, cougar, catamount and other names elsewhere in English-speaking North America — is one of those critters whose habitat people can’t seem to keep themselves from invading. In mountainous country, that can be a chore, but in the low-lying, flat landscape of Florida, the process of clearing off panther-friendly land for pasturage or a housing development isn’t much of a challenge.
When that happens, as it has been for the last couple of centuries, panther habitat disappears. When deer ticks infest cows and the response is to kill every deer in sight, panthers starve. And when habitat disappears and starving panthers come calling, taking down a pig or a calf instead of a deer, the panther becomes an enemy.
Hunted down for decades, the panther all but disappeared from Florida. A few individuals remained, genetically “bottlenecked” through inbreeding, seemingly on the way to extinction. But then, in a process Pittman has been chronicling in this newspaper over a long and distinguished career as an environmental reporter, a movement grew to restore the panther population. And therein hangs a complex story that no one knows better than he.
The first job wildlife biologists had, when that movement took hold, was to determine whether there were any panthers left at all and, if so, where they were. Enter a Texas hunter whose job it was to prove or disprove the official estimate that there were 100 cats on the ground, three-quarters of them in Big Cypress — an estimate that Pittman calls a SWAG, that is, “a scientific wild-ass guess.”
It was a start, though, opening the door to a decades-long fight that would set all kinds of elements into motion and all kinds of constituencies at one another’s throats. The usual suspects were on hand, developers and cattle barons and big landowners, since money is at stake when one tries to set aside real estate for wildlife.
But what kind of real estate? As Pittman recounts, that’s a matter that scientists squabbled over, using good evidence and bad evidence and no evidence. One honcho was adamant that panthers needed large forests and large forests alone: “Any other kind of habitat didn’t matter, even if you found a panther’s paw print in the middle of it.”
As it turns out, that wasn’t quite right. But it was enough to set off a bitter battle that mostly served to prove the truth that the perfect is the enemy of the good. When it turned out that the actual cats were more resilient than supposed — shy, but not shying from stealing into populated places to sneak a pet away for a snack‚ for instance — then the biologists had a broader palette to work with. And when that happened, “after all the political shenanigans and junk science and habitat paved over,” as Pittman concludes, then the chances improved markedly that the panther might again flourish in Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast.
That’s quite a change from a quarter-century ago, when there may have been as few as 20 panthers left alive in the Sunshine State. It’s certainly welcome news in a time of environmental apocalypse.
Other places around the country are wrestling with how to make room for wild creatures in the face of development, a growing human population and climate change: the wolf in Montana, the jaguar in Arizona, the coyote in, of all places, Chicago. Craig Pittman’s excellent book points the way for how to get the job done — and how not to get the job done. Any fan of big cats will find in his pages an education, and a pleasure.
Gregory McNamee lives in Tucson, Ariz. His latest book is “Trees: Between Heaven and Earth” (Insight Editions).
Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther
By Craig Pittman
Hanover Square Press, $27.99, 336 pages
Meet the author
Craig Pittman will discuss and sign Cat Tale at these events.
2 p.m. Jan. 19, Haslam’s Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
2 p.m. Feb. 2, Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
6:30 p.m. Feb. 3, with novelist Steph Post (Holding Smoke), Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Noon Feb. 11, Cathedral Church of St. Peter, 140 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg
Time TBA, Feb. 12, Selby Public Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota
Noon Feb. 25, Ringling College, 2700 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Noon Feb. 27, Stetson University College of Law, 1401 61st St. S, Gulfport
Noon March 16, Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota
7 p.m. March 31, Friends of the Island Parks, Unity of Palm Harbor, 1960 Tampa Road