It all started with a rattlesnake.
In the introduction to her new book, “Wild Florida: An Animal Odyssey,” Kirsten Hines writes that during her first visit to Florida as a college student on a field trip, the professor driving a van full of sleepy kids slammed on the brakes just south of the state line.
“Heads jerked to attention,” she writes, “as our herpetology professor suddenly whooped, ‘It’s a diamond-backed rattlesnake!’”
He backed up on the busy highway and used a snake stick to rescue the reptile from vehicular homicide. And Hines became a convert to Florida and all its creatures.
During her career as a biologist, educator and conservationist, she has also cultivated her photography skills. From the Panhandle to the Keys, she documented the state’s mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, on land, sea and air.
“Wild Florida” collects those photos along with her writing about each species. She groups native and nonnative species in separate chapters, and there are some surprises about the latter. The cattle egret, that ubiquitous plumed white bird that dots Florida pastures, may seem like a natural part of the landscape, but it’s an African species that only arrived here in the mid-1900s and made itself at home doing what it did in Africa: following herds of grazing animals.
Hines writes about animals in the state’s very different temperate and tropical zones, about those that live in the protection of reserves and those that coexist, sometimes very closely, with humans.
She writes about some conservation success stories: Alligators and American crocodiles, both almost extinct a century ago, have made robust comebacks thanks to human intervention.
Other stories are not yet resolved; the survival of species such as manatees and Florida panthers is still an open question.
Hines photographed many of her subjects in the wild, and her tales about how she managed it are some of the most entertaining parts of the book. She writes about going to Paynes Prairie to photograph wild Florida Cracker horses. When she almost walks into a family of them, the stallion chases her down the trail and confronts her nose to nose.
She tries for years to shoot a Florida black bear in the wild, with some near misses but no success. Then she stakes out a suburban neighborhood called Golden Gate Estates and, amid its manicured yards and pool cages, has four bear encounters in two days, including watching one pair mate.
When she’s given the opportunity to feed a boat-injured manatee in a rehab facility, “its velvety lips pulled my entire hand inside the pillow-soft interior of its mouth where peg-like teeth tenderly extracted my offered greens. I was surprised by the intimacy and gentleness of the interaction, an exchange that required trust on both our sides.”
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For newcomers and longtime Floridians alike, “Wild Florida” is a fine way to meet our neighbors.
Wild Florida: An Animal Odyssey
By Kirsten Hines
University Press of Florida, 305 pages, $42
Meet the author
Kirsten Hines will discuss and sign “Wild Florida” at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5 for admission, $42 for admission and a copy of the book at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.