'Cat Tale' Tells The 'Wild, Weird Battle To Save The Florida Panther'

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This is Florida matters. I'm Robin sussing. Ham the Florida Panther may be our official state animal but the big cat has been perilously close to extinction in the not too distant past and has hung on by the skin of its razor. Sharp Teeth Craig. Pittman is a Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter and author who spent decades closely following the fight to save the only known breeding population of Puma east of the Mississippi. His new book is cattail the Wild Weird battle to save the Florida Panther. Craig Pittman Welcome to Florida matters. Thank you this book is Not Zoological Study About the Florida Panther. What you did was you. Focus on the people involved in in this Battle this conservation battle to tell me how you structure the book. It's not like my last book. Oh Florida which each chapter was a different subject about Florida. You know it's weird history. Well when it's like to grow up in Florida gambling in Florida driving in Florida and no. Those are not the same chapter. This is more of a straight ahead history book in a way because it starts off with a prologue talking about a particular panther who identifies the most important panther in Florida history because of what happened when it died and then sort of rewind back to talk about how the native Americans regarded the panther. They called it the cat of God. And how the settlers feared it and Then outbound up on the endangered species list. How Florida School? Children voted it to be our state animal and then how very nearly went extinct in the nineteen ninety s and there was a desperate last experiment to try and bring them back and then sort of the ramifications of that and you do focus on individual characters. Yes we can kind of get to know and you see that the panthers fate was left to my handful of really important. People who most people don't know their names today. They have no idea who these folks are. That fought this battle to try and save the state animal and so I was trying to correct that and also Point out the one of the sort of themes in the book is whole women in stem thing that a lot of heroes of the story are women who were trying to get their male superiors or male colleagues to listen to them and it was really hard to get them to pay attention. The veterinarians yes case. I wanted to start out talking about Roy McBride. He's a great character. That's how you started. The book outweigh and honestly I would read a whole book about Roy McBride and you say it was funny because you say if if this story sounds familiar. It's because Cormac McCarthy wrote a book called the crossing which had to do with Roy McBride's Yes yes. His one of his most famous exploits out west was his long period of trying to trap a particularly damaging. I guess you'd say Wolf that was wreaking havoc on ranches all over Mexico and he spent months and months and months tracking and finally was able to capture it and that became the basis the book. But I mean Roy's done so many other things some of them very controversial at mentioned the bookie invented a collar for the sheep that he was supposed to be protecting that had poison in it. So if a wolf attacked the flock it we kill one sheet but then it would get and there are a lot of animal welfare folks. Who Don't like that. So Roy has a sort of complicated background addition say but once he was called in on the panther issue he was fully committed to the panther ended up studying it and saving it and every time. There's an important turn in the story. Roy POPs up. He's sort of like Zilog in the way and the thing is most of. That's not known because Roy does not like to talk about himself. I had a really hard time getting all living. Yes he's in his eighties and he's training his grandson to replace him grant. Whose son. Whose NAME IS COUGAR figures. Kind of raise my eyebrows. That Roy said I didn't name him like finally got him to talk to me by saying look. It's not that I wanNA make you unto you know this larger than life character. Anything that you were there. You're a witness and if you can't tell me what you saw and what you heard what you did then. I'm not going to be able to tell people the whole story what happened. That's how he agreed to that was because I think you really do. Make it clear in the book. That Roy McBride was a man of very few words. He grew up in the wilds the barons of West Texas where that movie no country country for men. That's it I think that's it and I remember I have driven through it and you just go for hours. And there's nothing and that's where he's from and he says that was perfect mountain line country right exactly and when he was growing up there the future consisted of either. You tend to cheap. You hunted the predators who wanted the sheep or you left town so he became a hunter and sort of a legendary Hunter Out West tracker the tracker mastering this Nineteenth Century Skill in the twentieth century and it turned out to be an absolutely essential skill for saving panthers. Did he move to Florida? Basically got a trailer at the end of a dirt road down the choppy area that he stays in part time but his basis still Texas and these families still based there too so and one thing that you made clear because you talk a lot about the tracking team. The team that started in the seventies. I think he's early eighties in the eighties. And this was when we really knew nothing. We didn't even know if panthers existed in Florida. Bright thought they didn't will win. The endangered species act passed in nineteen seventy-three which was by the way Co written by a Florida man again him nat read. The Panther was on the original endangered species list and a lot of Florida. Game officials Said well why are you putting that on their extinct? We don't have anymore Because there weren't any in Louisiana or Alabama. No they had gone extinct in all the other states east of the Mississippi and so the World Wildlife Fund thought. Maybe there were still panthers here. So they hired Roy and sent him out with Young College Grad student named Ron. Noack to try and find out if the warning panthers left and Roy found one just one sort of scrawny old female any found signs of others not too many but he found signs that there were there was still a population here so that marked the start of people realizing hey we have to do something about this and so then Peter Pritchard the Audubon society convened a meeting of all the supposed panther experts. Although really only two people there actually seen any hummus at all one was Roy in another was Frenchman named rubber body. You'll always picture talking like the narrator on the spongebob cartoons. 'cause it's such a thick French accent and out of that meeting. They picked this one guy named Chris. Belden this very slow talking very thoughtful biologist to head up the state's Panther Recovery Program and he'd never seen panther before didn't really know anything about him but started gathering material on them and find out what he could and asking people to write to him with their any sightings they had or anything like that and his quest became big news. And so anytime there'd be a story about Kris building looking for Panther Information. There'd be a picture of this sleek beautiful animal this Great Apex Predator with his lovely pelt and people just kind of fell in love with this vision of the Panther and with his quest to find them. And so that's why and I think it was eighty one when the state school children voted on. What should be the state animal You know there were the ballot listed alligators and dolphins and things like that and there were few write in votes for monkeys which always cracks me up but they voted for the panther overwhelmingly got way more votes than manatees or Katie. Or anything else. We didn't know if there was even just a handful of answers in the state that point. No we had no idea there were or even where they really lived. An so eighty-one was also the first year that Belden organized this capture team. He hired run McBride to come back from Texas and go out with his dogs and help him track down. Panthers put radio collars on them so they could track where they went. What you know what Habitat. They liked that kind of thing so they were just trying to find out these very basic things about Florida. Panthers just less than a generation ago just fifty years ago. Yeah exactly I mean you know. That hasn't been that long. No it hasn't been that long at all and I think people forget that they forget that the panthers were complete mystery to us up until the nineteen eighty s and then by the nineties. They were nearly gone so we almost lost our state animal so he really was a success of publicity at that point. Get the school children on board and the people on board and they if he fired up this is Chris. Belden fired up people's imagination somehow. He really did. I mean he made panthers into the cool thing. Of course he was bombarded with reports about false sightings. You know go out to check them out and discover it. Was you know really big dog for somebody or or at one point? It was actually I think he said it was like a bulldog died in the body had swollen up. And that's what they saw. So but fortunately Roy trained him how to look for the tracks how to look for other markers of Panther presence and so he was able to say okay finally by sorting through all these alleged sightings able to say Okay Panthers definitely live in big Cypress National Preserve Hatschi Strand State Park. They live in that area and they don't really live anywhere else. And so this is down south. Then yes yes now. Fort Meyers or a little south of Fort Myers and West of Miami and there were some in everglades national park also and not to mention just a few but when the state for started out they weren't allowed into everglades national park to search for panthers. There the I think the superintendent was afraid that letting people running around with dogs and tranquilizer. Dark guns would be bad for the National Park. Well this was a disaster. You pointed out this panther that you said was the most important. Yontef you three. F- Three that Florida Panther Three. It stands for and this is the one that's up in. Tallahassee stuffed and the Museum of Natural History and tell the story of how that Panther died because it really is kind of crucial to this whole story alias. If you WANNA see the most important panther in Florida history you have to go to tallahassee of all places and go to the state it's in the gray building down on the first floor. There's the Museum of Florida history but if you go up. I think it's the second or third floor. There's the state archives and there's this glass case that has a panther in it and that's F. P. Three Belden. His captured team had been going up for two years and successfully capturing panthers and a lot of them but a few and then they realized one of them that they'd previously captured Florida Panther number. Three there was a problem with the batteries in its radio collar and so they needed to catch it. Replace the batteries and then turn it loose again. And so they chased it down With roaming dogs and then one member of the capture team climbed up partway in the tree. With a panther had sought refuge shot with a tranquilizer dart and the way it hit and the dosage delivered were wrong and the panther fell out of the tree dead and two members of the capture team one of them. A woman named Deborah Janssen actually tried to give the Dying Panther mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at bring it back which that's a level of commitment to the job. You still in America was a catastrophe was if there are only six panthers I mean for all they knew that's all their work and they just killed one is a female female to and which made it even worse than so build and said that you know. He carried the carcass out of the swamp on his back feeling like he was carrying the burden of having driven the entire sub species into extinction and it led to this tremendous crisis. Not just for the Panther Program but for him personally as he went into a deep. Depression is marriage nearly unraveled. He ended up taking a religious turn to his life and accepting Jesus as a savior and that sort of gave him the equanimity to go on. But in the meantime he was replaced as Panther captured team. Leader People Marjory Stoneman. Douglas of all folks were calling for an end to the panther science program saying don't chase them down and put collars on them. Let them die in peace. Let them go ahead and go extinct and don't bother them. It was quite a thing and even several years later people still writing letters to the editor of their newspaper. Saying why are we still allowing these crazy scientist chase panthers around with dogs does sound terrible? You're taking these wild animals. You're putting collars on them marjory stoneman. Douglas hated the whole idea of even putting a collar on it because her cats collars off for because her cats her house cancelled an expert. Yes but I mean. It was an accepted scientific technique that have been used at west very successfully. Of course they had a lot more mountain lines out there than we had panthers here so they knew other way to learn now suspect this animal to try to save it who didn't have gopro cameras back then. It's just that the radio callers are the best they had so finally they brought on a new capture team leader. He stayed for a couple of years. Made some innovative changes in the program. And then he left and they brought in a guy named Dave mayor who worked really really hard to polish the image of the Panthers Science Program. He went out and wrote scientific articles. He spoke to civic groups. He invited various reporters and politicians to go along capture team trips and he sort of restored their image. The reason F. P. Three was so important is because as a result the game commission as it was then known decided. They needed to send a veterinarian out along with the capture team. So there'd be somebody watching for the condition of the Panther during the capture and then to supervise the taking of various samples and so they pick this woman named Melody Rookie veterinarian who originally was from California and had some background working with Cheetahs so she had some knowledge of dealing with big cats and she came in and as a result of the depth of f. p. three and immediately spotted that there were genetic problems with the panthers and now it's huge. It was huge and she had a really hard time convincing anyone else that she was right but she knew she was right and eventually she was able to convince people. We need to deal with this. Because this is going to limit our ability to save them if they can't reproduce and that was sort of condition they're in and that was sort of mid eighties early eighties late eighties late eighties. Yeah because I was thinking if three died in eighty three and then mayor came on around eighty five and that was the same year she started. I had a friend out in California. Who worked in a big cat rescue organization and I remember speaking to her about the Florida Panther and she said she thought they were doomed because of the inbreeding and the genetics were so messed up at that point. It just really didn't seem like that was in the early nineties that I would have been speaking to her that it seemed like there was no hope for them sadly and some developers sort of took advantage of that. They said well look. Panthers are just about extinct. How about we just go ahead and build and panther habitat and that persuaded a lot of government folks to say Yes to Development Panther Habitat in the nineties. Yeah in the ninety S. I'm Robin Sesing. Ham You're listening to Florida matters. And we're talking to Craig Pittman reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of many books including his newest cat. Tail The wild weird battle to save the Florida Panther. So Craig you call this the wild weird battle to save the Florida Panther. Where's the weird? Come in it's in a lot of places. At one point Florida's version of bigfoot the skunk ape actually shows up. There's a little cameo in there. Some action takes place at the place that calls itself these skunk ape. Research headquarters denote choppy. It's actually gift shop. I mentioned that the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge which the federal government bought and created this refuge for panthers because they didn't want to build anything on the site they want human presence there. The headquarters for that is actually in a comfort in on. I seventy five. So the joke is you know. Maybe the maybe the panthers get turned down service. They're a little mint on their pillow. Before we took a break. Craig you were talking about Dave Maher and this is somebody you made clear. He did a lot of good work to burnish. The image of the Panther Recovery Program. It had taken a bad turn with the death of that one panther and he really worked hard to publish a lot of scientific articles and to get the good work they were doing out there but he was also a controversial character in your book. Yeah very controversial. He was absolutely sure that he knew what he was doing. And nobody else did. And there are divided opinions about him people who had been on the capture team before found him to be really irritating that he knew best and he didn't bother asking them any questions or anything like that people he hired to join them on. The capture team loved. The guy still loved the guy had very charismatic. Personality attracted a lot of people to be very loyal to him but I dug into his personnel records and scientific papers and interviewed everybody. I could find an the fact was he was sort of tampering with the data so it would match the theories that he was coming up with any repeatedly clashed with his superiors and finally he was forced out because he was doing things that they had specifically told him not to do at one point he had been told. You have to stop trespassing on federal property at Big Cypress observe. You need to let them know that you're you're coming when you're GONNA go there and he refused to do that and so finally they tell them. We're spending you and you're not going to be leader. The capture team anymore so he resigned and then two weeks later turned up working for developers. That was incredible so he totally flip sides he did and you mentioned that. I think this was before. He lost his job working on the Panther Recovery Program. But he had this idea that panthers only needed forested land to live in and was a scientific paper. He wrote a big journal. It did and it went. It became the most influential panther science paper of all time but he tossed out forty percent of the data from the radio collar program because that didn't match his theory and asked him and they didn't disclose that in the paper and there were some other problems as well and Talked TO HIS CO author on the paper. Who said I complain? But Dave said hey on. Who's The panther expert you or me? And His partner. I think was a bird. Experience verdicts about GS. And that's why he was a CO author. Knew about mapping. Yeah exactly exactly so. He saw problems but whenever he raised objections de Mayor said well listen. I know what I'm doing. Just do what I tell you to this had wide ranging effects because then developers could say to the you know government. Look this paper backs this up. We can develop all this land because it's not panther land right however panther tracks on it. They'd say well that's not panther habitat and it's kind of ironic. The first development he showed up working on was a development actually called the habitat. Why you think he did that. You know I sort of speculate some in the book but I mean you know. He needed a job. He had a family to support he wanted to get his PhD so he he was working on that and obviously needed some money to pay for his continued schooling but the interesting thing to me is even after he got the PhD and he got up job as a professor at the University of Kentucky. He still doing work for developers their public records that show. He took sixty thousand dollars from Lee county to help them get a permit to extend highway through Panther Habitat and to persuade the fish and Wildlife Service to take his version of what habitat was panther habitat versus. Its own staff biologist. Who was saying that's GonNa wreck a whole bunch of panther habitat and Dave's argument was no. It's not and they went with his argument and overruled their own staff. Biologists so egos were in play here. It sounds like you know it's it's just incredible looking back over the years and you think sciences very dry subject. And everything's done. Factually but these human egos come into play. And they make a huge difference absolutely well and I mean the and the fights were incredible over this stuff other panther biologists saw flaws in Dave mayors paper but they were ignored because he was a PhD and they were not and so ultimately led to this very rare event. I don't know of another thing like it in Florida. At least where the state brought in four experts on Pumas from other states and ask them without telling them what was going on said. Please review all of the panthers scientific papers that have been published and so the Science Review team was called sat down and read through everything and then said this paper that Dave mayor put out and all the papers after it relying on that are based on bad science. Wow and you need to stop using those. Let's skip ahead. So because panthers got down to a very very small population and a lot of ood thirty Max In one thousand nine hundred five but they have made a comeback in summary. I think what they discovered was that veterinarian Rilke yes was cracked and of course the problem was habitat. Which is what Dave Mayor always stressed. How long that's the long term short term? The problem was the genetic defects that were preventing them from even breeding or living a complete life. Some of them had holes in their hearts She described one kipness having heart that sound like a washing machine because it was so messed up and so they initially tried captive breeding because that's sort of recognized as the last ditch effort for saving an endangered species and they went out and caught several kittens and discovered. The kittens had the same genetic defects as the adults which meant that. They wouldn't be able to successfully breed and fix the overarching problem so they had this big meeting up in North Florida at this place called white plantation and everybody was kind of down in the dumps like. Oh my God you know. We've we've blown it and we were GONNA lose panther. What can we do and finally someone? Unfortunately the WHO came up with I lost a history. It might have been melody. Roquette might have been somebody else accounting mealy seal but they said well what if we bring in some mountain lions from somewhere else and let them breed with the native panthers and that would fix up the genetic pool and there were lots of questions about whether it would work because nobody ever tried this before and b the legality of it because the endangered species act doesn't cover hybrids but the logic here was before humans arrived in North America that the habitat of Florida Panther covered the whole south and they probably bread with cougars from Texas at that point so the theory was well okay if they bred with him before. Maybe it's okay for them to breed with them again in a very limited way so they hired Roy McBride once again showing up in the story to keep moment and said go to tech go back to Texas and catch us some female mountain lions that you can turn loose in Florida and the everglades in Big Cypress and Roy had never told this story before about how he went about catching the cougars. And to me. It's the absolute high point of the book. It's it's really funny. I mean this is a very very dire depressing situation. But Roy had some interesting adventures in catching the the cougars. And he hadn't told the story before and so he finally winds up with eight healthy female cougars and brings him back to Florida and they turn them loose out in the swamps. You know to here to there and to everyone's surprise and shock it works. The rest is history. Yeah and so we. Now as a result we now have about two hundred two hundred thirty panthers roaming around them swampy wilderness so that's a tenfold increase from what we had in nineteen ninety-five so such good news. I've wanted to write this book for twenty years but I didn't have a good ending and that Sorta gave me the that hopeful ending that I needed. Well speaking of which I would love for you to read that ending the because just a couple of years ago some of Carlton Wards Cameras. I believe captured kittens and this was north of the collusive Hatschi. North of the clue Satchi River. Right which was incredible a because they were kittens so they're breeding and be because this was further north and they'd ever seen them so that was extremely important. And you wrote about that at the very end and if you could read that. I'm writing about this camera trap picture of these kittens and saying that you know these kittens. Maybe they'll be the ones to go on and repopulate Florida with more panthers than it's ever had before and how hard the road is going to be the AM. I made sure that was clear but I if that happens. Then there's a good chance of them repopulating the southeast and then I wrote that of course would make them the most important panthers in Florida History. Not if p three would mean all of the hard work and personal sacrifices by Chris Belden Roy McBride Milliken analysts several other people and the rest has at last paid off as I sit here. Staring at the photo of babs his kitten babs his babies because babs was the name of the mother. I know that what I'm seeing is probably just a pair of scared kittens scampering for the woods because the camera startled them. But the more I look at it the more I read into it I see them leaping into the future vaulting obstacles racing to make their place in the wide world. They get taller longer faster. Sleeker their teeth get sharper and their hunger grows chasing prey and finding mates of their own. They're having kittens just like the two in this photo. Here's hoping that Babs kittens will keep on pressing on keep finding new habitat that can accommodate their growing numbers and that never again does one ended up as a cat under glass hopeful ending. But it's going to be a hard road and you mentioned that they're gonNa need habitat you also talked about Carlton Ward and Joe Guthrie of Florida. Wildlife quarter expedition We've interviewed them on Florida matters. Snow reporter Steve. Newborn has spent a lot of time with them out in the field so that is going to be really important to have a wildlife quarter stretching from one into Florida to another and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Joe Guthrie was one of Dave Mir students and a fan of his yes and took to heart his lessons about the importance of habitat for these wide ranging animals. So not all of Dave's legacy is a bad legacy is very good complicated. It's has his Roy. Mcbride has all these people. They're all very complicated characters. Mean Roy McBride. Big Fan of rush. Limbaugh doesn't really like the Endangered Species Act didn't think the Genetic Augmentation project would work either. So I mean they're you know not. Everybody is wholly of a villain or a hero. Roy Wears a white hat but just because it keeps his face out of the Sunday with the way the wall of Quarter folks are actually characters in the book as well in the last. Chapter Carlton's camera traps record spotting different things. And he and Joe. Guthrie come up with the idea for the for their expedition. And I would encourage people to follow. Carlton Wards Instagram Account. Yes and you will see conscious. Amazing Pictures Pant on hope. He's mentioned that he's doing a project for National Geographic. I think it's supposed to come out next year called path of the panthers where he tries to show the Florida landscape from the panthers. Point of the should be pretty amazing. That's it for today's show. You can listen to Florida matters whenever it's convenient for you as a podcast. Search for it and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Florida matters is a production of W USF public media. The show was produced by Steve Newborn. I'm Robin Sussing Ham. Thanks for listening.

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