The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther
Hanover Square Press, 2020, 336 pp, HC $27.99, Kindle $12.99
Pittman asks "how do you protect an animal that you know almost nothing about?" In 1992 a study suggested that the Florida Panther would be extinct by 2016. Thus a consortium of people, from wildlife biologists, veterinarians, an expert animal tracker and others combine to learn about, track and collar the elusive cats. Pittman follows their progress and documents their accomplishments and setbacks in his book.
Pittman writes with a wry humor and a nod to the quirks of the men and women involved in saving the panther. McBride, a tracker from Texas, is sent to Florida to determine if there are any cats left. He wears a Stetson, and is a loner who likes to travel only with his dogs on foot through the Florida swamp. One scientist plays off of the media and publishes many dubious papers on the panther for his own gain. A sole female on the team is a veterinarian that proves the cat's inbreeding has led to congenital heart defects through something called electro-ejaculation. Pittman jokes that we need not know the details of this procedure.
Once hunted prolifically, when the panther's disappearance became more evident, there was a state-wide program where school children were able to name the state animal. The panther won, raising awareness to their plight. The panther enjoyed the much needed if short lived admiration of the Florida population. This however had its own backlash. Even though tracking and darting the cats was necessary to determine their health and location, it was viewed as cruel. Throughout Cat Tale there are innumerable complications such as this and on a greater scale.
Pittman's prose, as the title suggests, is that of a story teller. As a journalist he interviews people and researches his topic thoroughly. As a writer he brings us into the story like a friend. He adds drama and clarity to an otherwise convoluted journey. The main character is always the panther. The sub-story is of political policy, public fear, a tug of war between developers and conservationists, ranchers and science. The Fish and Wildlife service gave the "green light to permits for thirty-five development projects that affected 38,484 acres" in Florida from 1999 to 2005. This included much of the panther habitat. Another snafu the scientists encountered was a crossbreeding program that Pittman describes as a "Hail-Mary". Captive breeding wasn't working. The panthers were going to die out, but to introduce another puma breed to save the species could knock the panther off of the endangered list. This was a catch twenty-two. Keep the breed pure and protected while it dies out, or introduce new healthier genes and risk legal problems, or worse.
Cat Tale has an almost happy ending. As Pittman brings us through the trials of the panther, its habitat closing through development, being hunted and run down on the interstate, we discover the panther is more adaptable then first thought. Deftly leading us through the often times chaotic and sometimes humorous decade's long story of the Florida panther's fight against extinction, Pittman has written an engrossing and entertaining tale.