Slaughter Alley

Big, dead cats in the middle of the road -- lots of them

In 1995 state biologists brought eight female Texas cougars to the Big Cypress area in an effort to introduce genetic variety and correct the inbreeding. The imports have given birth to 35 offspring, Richardson notes, though not all have survived.

Without panthers the entire 729,000-acre Big Cypress ecosystem breaks down. The population of animals on which they prey -- raccoons, deer, wild hogs -- increases, and along with it the prospect of rabies outbreaks. "People don't understand how important panthers are," Richardson observes. "Everybody lives under the panthers' umbrella. If you protect the acreage they need, you have protected all the other animals."

That the panthers' numbers still are pathetically low suggests the current protection strategy may not be working very well. In May of last year, several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, the Collier County Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Wildlife Federation, filed a lawsuit against the federal government for not taking adequate measures to protect the Florida panther. Among other things the complaint identifies 26 development projects in panther habitat that further squeeze the animals. "The federal government needs to buy more land," sighs Richardson.

Brian Call organized a memorial service for Saturday, June 2, to raise awareness of the panthers' predicament. About 30 mourners gathered along State Road 29, braving the afternoon heat and no-see-ums as the sun beat down on the stain in the pavement where the female panther had expired. "As hokey as this may sound," Call recited to the crowd, "I made a promise to the panther I found that her death would be known and that I would do my best to offer something good to come out of her tragedy." He likened himself to a pebble and hoped that other pebbles would join him and make waves. He urged people to write their legislators and join conservation groups. And he closed with an entreaty to become emotional: "If we are emotionally detached from nature, believing we are somehow on the outside looking in, then even our best conservation efforts will fail. We must realize we are all in this together -- with all of Earth's inhabitants."

Richardson, the U.S. government biologist, added remarks about the dramatic disappearance of critical panther habitat, most of which is private property. Only 40 square miles of the animals' natural area are inside state or federal preserves. That means a male panther, which typically ranges over a 200-square-mile area, is likely to cross highways several times in a week.

Seven miles south of the ceremony, at the junction of State Road 29 and the Tamiami Trail, Jack Shealy sits behind the counter of his Trail Lakes Campground wearing a white T-shirt with a panther head printed on it. For the amusement of his campers -- and in sad testament to the virtual impossibility they will ever see one of the creatures in the wild -- Shealy sneaks around his campsites at night making fake panther-paw imprints with a device he fashioned for that purpose. He was one of those people who heard the news come over his police scanner May 6. "They need flashing lights at each end of that road to let people know they need to slow down," Shealy suggests, adding that drivers can usually speed with impunity along State Road 29, in contrast to the Tamiami Trail.

Enforcement on the Trail is especially rigorous about 15 miles to the east on the Miccosukee reservation, where the speed limit drops to 45 miles per hour day and night. Only ignorant drivers exceed the limit along that notorious stretch. Perhaps the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission should consider hiring the Miccosukees' cops to patrol the panther habitat along State Road 29, an idea that appeals to Larry Richardson. "We need to nail people like the Miccosukees have," he proposes. "We just need to start poppin' speeders, and the word will get out."

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