On the night of May 6, the horrible news crackled from police scanners all along the Tamiami Trail, from Naples to the Big Cypress National Preserve, 50 miles west of Fort Lauderdale. Fatal hit and run on State Road 29 north of Everglades City. Victim: ten months old, female.
Nature photographer Brian Call made the grisly discovery at about 11:45 p.m. He had spent that Sunday evening hiking the boardwalk that snakes into the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, spying alligators through the footlong lens of his camera. After slogging for a while off the trail, he nearly got stuck in a mud hole with two eight-foot gators nearby. That would be the story he would tell his wife, he thought, as he began the drive home to Pembroke Pines, rolling north through the black tunnel that remote State Road 29 becomes at night. But suddenly his headlights illuminated a small body crumpled on the center line. He slammed on the brakes. What on earth was a youngster doing out here in the middle of the darkness?
She was trying to cross the damn road, that's what. Florida panthers cross State Road 29 all the time because it cuts right through prime habitat.
Call pulled over, got out, quickly snapped a few pictures, and then dragged the carcass, which was still warm, to the edge of the roadway. Her skull was crushed; the imprint of an automobile grill was visible on her left side. Strange chirping sounds emanated from the brush a few paces away. It was the dead animal's mother, calling in vain to her offspring. Call felt sick. He had always dreamed of photographing a panther in the wild, but he never imagined his first would be a dead one.
The 37-year-old amateur photographer turned around and drove seven miles south to the Collier County sheriff's substation at Everglades City, where he reported the incident. Soon Call was heading back to the ugly scene accompanied by three squad cars. Despite the late hour, two men from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission drove over from Naples. Biologist Mark Lotz and Greg Taminosian, a state wildlife-enforcement officer, later hauled the dead cat to their office complex and placed it in the facility's freezer.
There would be more terrible news. A few hours after Call's grim discovery, Lotz found a dead ten-month-old male panther on the same road just 300 feet from the site of the first accident. He determined the two were siblings. Then a little more than two weeks later, on the night of May 23, a police dispatcher contacted Lotz about yet another panther death. This victim was a male between two and three years of age. Again the animal was killed by a vehicle on State Road 29, this time several miles north of Interstate 75, in the Sunniland area. Along with two earlier fatal automobile collisions in April, the body count rose to five so far this year. In 2000 the tally was nine in all.
If you're wondering what's the big deal about a few road kills, you obviously haven't been following the plight of the panther. Puma concolor coryi once roamed throughout the southeastern United States and mingled with other large cats. But after many decades of hunting and encroachment by humans, the only remaining Florida panthers had retreated to the isolated swamplands of South Florida. The U.S. government identified the subspecies as endangered in 1967, well before the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. When the first definitive population studies were completed in the late '70s, biologists concluded the cats were alarmingly close to utter extinction. Their estimated numbers: between 30 and 50.
Construction of ten-foot-tall fences along I-75 as it traverses the Everglades kept panthers from attempting to cross the superhighway, previously the scene of numerous fatalities. Underpasses cut beneath the roadway allowed the animals to wander safely and have helped bring up the numbers to the present level of between 60 and 70 individuals. Special speed limits are in effect on other highways, including State Road 29, which is only partially lined with fencing. But given the human proclivity to drive as fast as possible, biologists believe more fencing is in order. "Since the ten-foot fencing and underpasses went in, we have not had a single panther killed on I-75. It's remarkable," says Larry Richardson, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works in Big Cypress.
Death by speeding motor vehicle is only the cruelest form of panther punishment. But over the decades humans have inflicted a more gradual kind of violence on this animal, exacting a toll grotesque enough to make a grown man squirm. Historically a panther would roam over hundreds of square miles; hence the gene pool spread far and wide. But as people swarmed into Florida during the 20th Century, urban sprawl displaced the cats while canals and roads hemmed them in. No longer able to travel the great distances that had enabled them to find mates outside their immediate families, the felines became inbred. Specifically that has meant deformed spermatozoa incapable of fertilizing ova, and testicles that don't descend during puberty, rendering an inordinate number of male panthers sterile.
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.
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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."