Florida Panther's Return Spells Doom for Gladesmen
Illustration by Tim Gabor
Jack Laban swears a cat was out here raising hell just this morning. Mosquitoes slurp blood through the 94-year-old shirtless Gladesman's baggy skin as he hobbles across a landfill of empty Pepsi cans and settles into a folding chair. The former Miami plumber with a full head of white hair uses a rope for a belt and keeps a .45 in his scuffed brown boot. He's lived out here in the Big Cypress Preserve for 35 years -- one of the last people to hold out and not sell their land to the government.
A Heinz 57 mutt barks madly in the front yard, apropos of nothing. Despite this guard dog, Laban is so paranoid that he rarely leaves his boarded-up house, which is 12 feet wide and looks like a trailer.
Although the father of two thinks grifters are out to steal his stuff, there are at least two things wrong with that assumption. First, there are only five residences left out here on Turner River Road, a dusty, chalk-colored path that forces Google Maps to go wonky and can make a pristine, light-green hatchback quickly resemble a grape dropped in playground sand.
Second, it's unclear what anyone would steal from a man who lives without hot water or air conditioning. Even if intrepid thieves made it past the yellow-haired dog and powered through the foul, sour stench, they'd likely turn back when they saw the house was overrun with opossums and rattlers that sometimes break into Laban's packets of powdered milk. Although he used to shoot at them, ricocheting bullets posed a threat. Now the critters pretty much live there too.
That's all fine by him. But if there's one animal that Laban can't tolerate, it's the Florida panther. Ever since geneticists and conservationists conspired to bulk up the federally endangered population 15 years ago, he says panthers have practically overrun the area and created a nuisance.
"No good those cats ever did nobody," he says before spitting onto the sand.
Laban and other rural Florida residents say the Florida panther's rebound is destroying their way of life. Gladesmen believe a monster cat created in 1995 to save the species is bigger, more aggressive, and multiplying rapidly.
But some wildlife officials maintain the problem is all in their heads. "When people say they're seeing all these panthers on their property, very often it's the same one coming back again and again," says Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They're notoriously overcounted by people."
But Onorato does acknowledge that the cat's population is increasing and that the numbers have increased from an estimated 30 just 15 years ago to somewhere between 100 and 180 today. The quantity of cats has actually reached carrying capacity south of the Caloosahatchee River, which cuts 67 miles across Florida, starting near Fort Myers.
He is hoping a female will have the gumption to go north. But what are Floridians supposed to do when the apex predator leaves the sparsely populated areas around Alligator Alley and heads into the 'burbs?
In May, a Port St. Lucie man was forced to ask that very question. He saw a panther and her babies crossing the street near his house and reported it to the state. When a return call never came, he took to the internet for help.
"What do I do now?" he pleaded.
"Get a gun, learn how to use it, and be prepared to shoot," came the response.
Pumas have ranged throughout North America for more than 400,000 years. Scientists believe what we know today as the Florida panther fled for the American Southeast about 18,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age turned Canada and the northern U.S. into a sheet of ice.
"The restoration project was deliriously successful, and the 'Save the Panther' license plate will be a relic to our grandchildren."
Back in 1995, the cat was almost kaput. Demographic models showed there was a 95 percent chance of extinction in two decades if nothing changed. Isolated from other subspecies of puma, the cats were inbreeding and growing weak. Knowing that the beloved creature was about to go the way of the dodo bird, scientists and conservationists were left with few options.
So an animal researcher named Stephen O'Brien cooked up a biological Hail Mary. The Cornell-bred geneticist was known for his work on endangered species, including cheetahs, lions, koalas, and humpback whales.
"People said, 'Oh you're not saving the Florida panther; you're replacing it,' " he remembers. "But the restoration project was deliriously successful, and the 'Save the Panther' license plate will be a relic to our grandchildren."
To Spanish explorers, our efforts to restore the panther would have been hilarious. They knew the animal only as a plentiful pest. Hernando DeSoto noted that Native Americans would post guards on their burial grounds to prevent the cats from eating bodies. An ornithologist named it in 1890, and for years, the Florida panther's territory looked like a map of the Confederate United States.
Then, development pushed it down to the swamp. The only people living there were Gladesmen -- a subset of the Florida cracker who collected wood and fashionable feather plumes, forging a living off the Everglades' bounty.
In 1936, Les and Bill Piper, two former bootleggers from Detroit, moved to Bonita Springs, just north of Naples, and opened a roadside zoo that catered to tourists. At Everglades Wonder Gardens, the Piper brothers bred cats from Costa Rica with those they had caught in Hendry County. According to a 1965 letter from Roger Allin, then superintendent of Everglades National Park, these cats ended up in the gene pool as part of an unpublicized repopulation program. The park received two cats in 1957 and five more between 1965 and 1968.