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A Hunter, A Vet And Schoolchildren: 'Cat Tale' Explores Characters That Saved The Florida Panther

Courtesy of Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman's new book, 'Cat Tale,' tells the story of how Florida's state animal was at the brink of extinction.

In the opening scene of this month’s Sundial Book Clubpick, “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther” by Craig Pittman, hunters in the Everglades chase down a panther shooting tranquilizer darts.

They catch the animal. “I started with the most dramatic scene,” Pittman says.

When he started working at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) covering environmental issues, one of the first stories he wrote was about the Florida panther. This story was the launch of his fascination with the panther, the central character of his new book.

"Cat Tale" tells of how Florida’s state animal was at the brink of extinction, through stories he gathered from ‘a group of oddball characters,” including a panther hunter, biologist and veterinarian, who were essential in saving it.

“I say the schoolchildren are really the ones who saved [the panther],” Pittman says on Sundial. He joined the program from Books & Books in Coral Gables on Saturday, Feb. 8.

This has been edited lightly for clarity.

WLRN: There are so many fascinating characters. All of them play an important role. I want to talk about my favorite one, Roy McBride. He was a hunter. And they brought him in to help protect the panther. How in the world did a hunter have a change of heart?

PITTMAN: Roy's this fascinating guy who he grew up in very rural Texas. And he told me that where he grew up, you only had three choices for a job: raising the sheep, chasing down the predators that were killing the sheep or leaving town. Roy became a guy who hunted the predators. He became an expert hunter. He knew how to find wolves. He knew how to find mountain lions in Texas.

When the Endangered Species Act passed, panthers were on the original endangered species list. A lot of supposedly smart Florida officials said, "Well, we don't think they belong in there because we think they're already extinct. We think you're wasting your time trying to protect them." So the World Wildlife Fund hired Roy for $500 to come to Florida and see if there were any panthers left. He found one, one scrawny female. He found signs there might be others. He figured there might be 20, tops, left in Florida. Every time there's an important thing that happens involving panthers, Roy was there. He popped up playing this important role. And he told me that he had sort of shifted his sympathies. When he discovered there were still panthers left in Florida, he became this guy that they turned to a lot in trying to study them and learn about them and figure out what they needed in order to be protected and safe.

Credit Alejandra Martinez
Author Craig Pittman gives a presentation about the Florida Panther at Books & Books.

How did the panther become the state animal?

Oh, this is a great story! I love this one. So there was a move afoot in the legislature to name a state animal. And the guy who was then the secretary of education for Florida, Ralph Turlington, thought it would be smart to have the state's schoolchildren vote on what should be the state animal. He drew up a ballot and sent it out to all 67 counties and said, please have your schoolchildren vote on this. The choices were the alligator, the manatee, the dolphin, and the panther. Nobody expected the panther to win, but this was at the same time that the state's first panther expert, Chris Beldon, who had never actually seen a panther, was trying to find where the panthers lived. He was going on this very public quest to find panthers and asking people to help him. He was giving speeches. He was writing articles for magazines and so forth. And every time these things would run, they would run a picture of this beautiful panther, the sleek predator. And it sort of caught the public imagination. People started falling in love with this beautiful panther, really caught the public's imagination.

When the kids voted, they voted overwhelmingly to make the panther the state animal. And it surprised everyone. And so then they sent along to the legislature in 82 to ratify it. And some of the legislators refused. They said, "Everybody knows the gator is Florida's state animal." I think they're all UF grads. And the schoolchildren went nuts and bombarded the legislators with angry letters saying, 'How dare you try and overturn our election? You asked us what we should pick. This is what we picked. Don't back off.' And they said, OK. They approved it and officially in 1982 made the panther Florida state animal.

Here’s where you can join the Sundial Book Club.

We asked you if you’ve ever seen a Florida Panther live in the wild?

Saw three at the same time, once. A mother and two cubs. — Mark Hedden

I have! On the beach 10 years ago while at Lauderdale at the Sea. Right by the end of the sand! — Adrianne Gonzalez

I saw one once when I was a kid. We had a cabin in the Everglades. — Dawn Davies

Watch our Facebook Live of our interview with Craig Pittman.