By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
The Florida panther is a beautiful creature, endowed with leonine dignity and feline grace. As with all big predatory cats, our local panther is made even more alluring by a furtive sense of menace. If the panther has become an appealing symbol for the environmental movement, it is also evocative on a more primal level, calling to mind images of sharp claws, murderous fangs, and bloody death.
Fortunately for those who fight to keep the endangered panther from disappearing entirely, its depleted population and extreme shyness have historically ensured that local activists and wildlife agencies won't have to contend with difficulties like those faced by, say, their counterparts in Bangladesh, whose efforts to save the Bengal tiger are occasionally interrupted by said cat's unfortunate tendency to eat people. The Florida panther is a phantom, even to people who've spent their lives in the Everglades, people like brothers David and Jack Shealy.
"We've seen a lot of panthers," Jack says. "Growing up out here you see them all the time, but only for a second. We used to blame them for everything when we were little kids. If we were out hunting and we came back to the campground and there was a piece of bread missing, we'd say, öA panther did it!'"
Jack is 44 years old, heavyset, and laid-back, just about the opposite of 41-year-old David, whose ropy physique mirrors a coiled intensity. The Shealys own and operate Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, a loose collection of shops and scattered private residences, where the best-known landmarks are a National Park Service office building and what is purported to be the smallest post office in the United States.
The 30-acre campground sits on the south side of Tamiami Trail, about an hour west of Krome Avenue. It is a relatively rare piece of high ground that is encircled by the black-water swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve. A passing driver could hardly miss the Shealys's six-foot-high fiberglass statue of a Florida panther prowling in front of the campground office and gift shop. You can almost always find one of the brothers behind the counter at the gift shop, chatting with a local or with one of the outdoorsmen who use the 150 RV and tent spaces at Trail Lakes.
The Shealy brothers -- Jack is a lifelong bachelor; David is divorced -- live like many residents of Glades-bound communities such as Ochopee and Everglades City. They run small businesses that cater to tourists and the hunting and fishing crowd, making just enough money to get by. They spend lots of time outdoors, where the brutal heat makes shirt and shoes optional, and where their skin weathers to a deep reddish brown. They are self-reliant, fiercely independent, and have little use for governments and the rules they impose; many, the Shealys among them, have criminal records littered with smuggling and poaching offenses to prove it.
They also coexist with nature in a far more intimate way than the tourists who perspire for an hour on the Shark Valley tram ride, or even the devoted activists who spend as much time at meetings advocating proper Everglades policy as they do in the River of Grass itself. This deep understanding of their environment informed the Shealys that something was wrong when a panther began showing up at their campground, resisting all attempts to chase it away. Their frustration with the panther and the wildlife authorities who are supposed to monitor it led to a bizarre episode on a muggy June night -- the creation of a short film you won't see at a PETA meeting anytime soon.
The film is set at the campground, between the office where Jack sleeps and the small ranch-style home where David sleeps. An amateur scientist named Jan Jacobson shot it from the cluttered interior of his 1978 Travco recreational vehicle, parked on the dirt road that leads through Trail Lakes. Jacobson is a 25-year resident of the Everglades' Loop Road community, twenty miles east of the Shealys. The first third of his ten-minute movie isn't much to look at -- a motionless scene of a brown goat tied to a stake and illuminated by one of the campground's streetlights. The animal is hemmed in by darkness and by the Everglades' nightly aural collage: the high-pitched whine of tree frogs, guttural snorts from pig frogs, and the ominous rustle of unseen creatures. At the five-minute mark a 100-pound male panther pads into the circle of light. The cat stares calmly at the tethered goat, his impassive eyes set in a regal face made lopsided by the loss of one ear and framed by a bulky black collar.
"Hell," says Jack, surveying the campground in the midday heat, "there's probably one looking at us right now." He shrugs and heads back into the gift shop, which houses a cluttered assortment of cold drinks, fishing gear, alligator-head souvenirs, and ornate swords decorated with dragons and skulls. Also on display are plaster casts of huge footprints supposedly made by the legendary Skunk Ape, an Everglades version of the Pacific Northwest's Sasquatch. The Shealys, amiably exploiting the appeal of roadside attractions, are energetic proponents of the beast's existence; they sell Skunk Ape T-shirts and even host an annual Skunk Ape festival.