by Craig Pittman
Hanover Square Press, 2020. 336 pages.
Hardcover, Kindle, and MP3 CD editions available from all major online booksellers.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther could in many ways be called a sequel to longtime Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman’s previous four books: Paving Paradise, Manatee Insanity, The Scent of Scandal, and Oh, Florida!, subtitled “How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.”
Much of Cat Tale pertains to “paving paradise,” or at least Florida panther habitat, and how that has come about through politically influenced land use decisions reeking of “the scent of scandal.”
Sequel to Paving Paradise, Manatee Insanity et al
Like Manatee Insanity, Cat Tale is an entertaining yet detailed history of how a few deeply dedicated scientists and advocates have helped a species that 50 years ago seemed unlikely to survive the 20th century to persist into the 21st century, more numerous now than then, despite the active hostility of practically everyone elected to public office in Florida and their many political allies in Washington D.C.
Further, many of the shenanigans that Pittman describes could fall under the general heading of “How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” except that similar stories have been underway in almost every state for as long as the Endangered Species Act has existed, as developers, ranchers, hunters, and others strive to evade “critical habitat” designations, while regulatory agencies strive to accommodate them, to avoid displeasing the elected officials who control their budgets.
Panthers save themselves––with help from Texas kin
The unique twist in Cat Tale is that Florida panthers, with the help of introduced genetic diversity brought from Texas in 1995, have accomplished much more to save themselves than all the piles of studies, lawsuits, and bureaucratic correspondence pertaining to their existence put together.
Even the first attempt to radio-collar a Florida panther killed the animal, as Pittman details. Nothing else anyone did seemed to help Florida panther recovery very much, until tracker Roy McBride, who formerly specialized in killing predators on behalf of Texas ranchers, finally brought the Texas cats to Florida as a last ditch attempt to achieve successful breeding in the wild, after captive breeding failed.
Even “type specimen” was inbred
Bringing in the Texas cats was possible because the Florida panther, the Texas “cougar,” the “mountain lion” known to much of the rest of the U.S., and the puma, the term used by Spanish-speaking people throughout their range, are really all regional variants of the same animal, found from southwestern Canada to southern Chile and Argentina.
Trying to breed “pure” Florida panthers failed, along with all previous recovery strategies, because as veterinarian Melody Roelke established years earlier, the few remaining Florida panthers had become so inbred that even the specimen shot by New York playboy and amateur biologist in 1895 as the example used to formally define the Florida puma subspecies exhibited inbred deformities.
One example: a tail bent at a sharp right angle.
A century later, few if any Florida panther males were even capable of successfully inseminating the last females.
Doing anything at all to combat inbreeding was delayed for years by the insistence of longtime Florida panther recovery team leader Dave Maehr that the real issue for the panthers was loss of habitat, even as Maehr repeatedly signed off on deals that reduced protected panther habitat, and excluded from his studies the 40% of radio collar tracking data that showed he was dead wrong about what sort of habitat Florida panthers use.
Maehr, the major villain among many profiled in Cat Tales, was killed at age 52 on
June 20, 2008, along with citrus grower and pilot Mason Smoak, 33, when Smoak’s light plane crashed after takeoff at the Placid Lakes Airport in Highlands County, Florida.
Maehr and Smoak, a prominent member of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, were doing an aerial survey of the Highlands County black bear population. Bears became Maehr’s chief subject of alleged expertise only after he was belatedly discredited as a Florida panther expert.
How far could they go?
“A key issue,” St. Petersburg Times staff writer Stephanie Garry summarized after Maehr’s death, “was how far and where panthers would roam. Maehr used daytime tracking research to show they wouldn’t travel more than 300 feet between forests, though some said the nocturnal range would be different.”
Maehr’s findings, as Pittman details, were repeatedly used to permit development that other Florida panther advocates, including most of his own recovery team, contended would encroach upon the panthers’ dwindling habitat.
“For years Maehr’s research went unquestioned, even though he represented development interests at the same time he billed himself as an unbiased scientist,” wrote Chad Gillis of the Naples Daily News in December 2003.
Pittman found through Freedom of Information requests that Maehr was in truth making more than his $70,000-something a year U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service salary doing consulting work for developers.
Finally, in May 2004, 17-year U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Andrew Eller accused his own agency of knowingly using bad data on panther habitat, reproduction, and survival to approve eight construction projects, including a mining operation by Florida Rock Industries Inc. that was opposed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Florida Panther Society.
Eller was fired two months later, but the Florida Rock Industries project was stopped by U.S. District Judge James Robertson in August 2004, and Eller, supported in a whistleblower lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, was rehired in June 2005––except that he was no longer allowed to work on Florida panther recovery.
Maehr moved on to a professorial position at the University of Kentucky, where he may have taught “How to misrepresent data for fun and profit” under some other less obvious title, while continuing to rake in consulting fees.
Florida panthers beat “puma panic”
What Florida panthers did for themselves, meanwhile, besides breeding prolifically with their distant kin from Texas, was to recolonize most of Florida on their own.
Along the way, Florida panthers have demonstrated, like their even more distant kin residing in heavily populated coastal California, Oregon, and Washington, that most human concerns about their presence are unfounded.
More than 20 years ago, when captive puma breeding and exchange among private fanciers, roadside zoos, and operators of guaranteed kill game preserves better known as “canned hunts” remained virtually unregulated, ANIMALS 24-7 identified the phenomenon of “puma panic,” triggered by the behavior of habituated pumas when they escaped or were surreptitiously released from human custody.
Pumas appearing to have been habituated to humans while living in captivity were found starving to death in the midst of dense concentrations of prey, eating cat and dog food on porches, rapping on glass sliding doors when the bowls were empty, even walking up to families on hiking trails instead of pouncing on them from ambush, and in one instance retreating from a frightened mother’s jackknife.
Help from the “Shambala Act”
Suspected habituated pumas did kill and injure several people, as well as killing some domestic pets and livestock in surprisingly inept ways. Not surprisingly, such incidents contributed to humans’ normal instinctive fear of the presence of any large predator.
The December 2003 passage of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, also known as the “Shambala Act,” after the Shambala Sanctuary operated by act proponent and former actress Tippi Hedren, has since December 2003 significantly restricted legal movement of big cats across state lines. This, and stricter enforcement of applicable state laws, appears to have reduced captive puma breeding and trafficking to a mere fraction of what it once was.
Puma-related incidents of all sorts, including fatal attacks on humans, have corresponding tapered off to extreme rarity, while “puma panic” as it existed at peak in the 1990s is now all but forgotten.
Do Florida panthers still need the Endangered Species Act?
Yet the wild puma population is probably higher across the U.S. than at any time in at least the past 150 years. Pumas have re-established themselves throughout the West Coast, Southwestern, and Rocky Mountain states, appear to be re-colonizing the Midwest, and are likely to reclaim habitat in the Northeast and Southeast beyond Florida, responding to the increasing abundance of deer and feral pigs.
The combination of radio-collaring and the growing use of camera traps, described by Pittman, has demonstrated that wild pumas, raised in the wild, have very little interest in making their presence known to humans in any manner.
Not very far ahead may be a prolonged and heavily litigated fight to remove Florida panthers from Endangered Species Act protection. Florida panthers no longer seem to need it, over much of their expanding range, and except for encouraging a great deal of research, only some of it actually useful, the Endangered Species Act appears to have not done much for Florida panthers either.
Essential yet entertaining reading
Even the introduction of Texas pumas to augment the Florida panther breeding population might have been thwarted, had opponents succeeded in arguments that pumas in Texas are not covered by the Endangered Species Act, and that therefore their offspring should not be considered endangered.
Between now and whenever the inevitable delisting battle develops, Cat Tales is essential yet enjoyable reading for anyone wanting to better understand it.
Having had transient acquaintance with several of the principals, including some of the Florida panthers taken into captivity at various points, ANIMALS 24-7 can add a note of appreciation for the accuracy of many of Pittman’s characterizations and descriptions.
As the Tampa Bay Times downsized 30-year staff member Pittman out of a job on the very day that ANIMALS 24-7 first posted this review, it is likely that Pittman will soon be producing more books, to which we eagerly look forward.