Wild and Crazy

Guess what happens when an eccentric ecologist and a couple of feisty backwoods boys claim that a rare Florida panther is on the attack

But business is slow on this late-summer afternoon, and Jack, shoeless in his customary jeans rolled up a few inches above the ankle, settles heavily into a chair behind the gift-shop counter. Fastened to the wall above him are a Confederate flag and a ten-foot-long python skin. "The thing is, this panther with the missing ear was different," he says in a soft-spoken drawl. "We knew it as soon as it showed up. And I told those people that it was a sick animal."

Those people Jack refers to (with a derisive smirk) are officials of the National Park Service and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, two of the agencies responsible for managing Florida panthers. Since 1973, when the panther was listed under the newly created Endangered Species Act, state and federal wildlife agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to save the animal. There has been some good news. A population once estimated at 20 to 30 mature adults is now believed to have grown to nearly 100. Fences and underpass crossings have helped keep the cats off Florida's busy roadways, and electronic collars allow biologists to track the animals to discern patterns in movement, feeding, and mating habits (the last having received a boost after the importation of eight female Texas cougars in 1995). To date 132 Florida panthers have been collared, including FP60, the star of Jan Jacobson's film.

"I told them more than once that the panther was sick, that it acted deaf half the time," says Jack after ringing up a soda for a hunter on his way into the campground. "People threw firecrackers at it and it just sat there. But everything I said, the park people said it was just normal panther behavior. That was their thing: öNormal panther behavior.' If that cat had stolen a car and driven away, they would've said, öHey, it's just normal panther behavior.'"

David Shealy
Jonathan Postal
David Shealy
Jan Jacobson (pictured inside his RV) filmed a panther attacking a tethered goat to prove that the predator had been slaughtering livestock
Video Captions Courtesy of Jan Jacobson
Jan Jacobson (pictured inside his RV) filmed a panther attacking a tethered goat to prove that the predator had been slaughtering livestock

While Jack works the cash register at the gift shop, David divides his afternoon among mowing Trail Lakes' grassy areas, cleaning the campground's restrooms, and stewing over his treatment at the hands of the park service and wildlife commission.

"I don't see what good the damn collars are if it took 'em two weeks to figure out that a panther was killing my animals," he says. When David feels strongly about something, which is often, his ice-blue eyes bug out as he talks. He removes a black cowboy hat, banded with alligator teeth, and wipes the sweat from his brow with a skinny forearm. Taking a break from his cleaning chores, the younger Shealy rests on the sink in the men's shower area and smokes a Marlboro Light. Outside it's about 95 degrees; inside, with nary a breeze to stir the steamy air, it must be 115.

But the heat does nothing to diminish David's enthusiasm for the topic at hand: the ongoing troubles with his neighbors, the National Park Service. "We've been here since 1890," he says. "Go to the Chokoloskee cemetery and my family has the oldest headstone. We never had any problems until they decided they wanted our land. I mean, I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I think the National Park Service is trying to drive my family off our land."

The Shealys have rebuffed attempts by managers of 730,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve to buy their campground, a tiny island surrounded by a sea of federal wetlands. The brothers also claim they've been the targets of harassment by park service rangers who regularly show up at the campground to ask a few questions. Says Jack: "I have a white truck, and anytime anybody in a white truck does anything wrong, they come here and accuse me." Park administrators have also cracked down on the use of noisy, fat-tired swamp buggies, a move that, not surprisingly, has greatly annoyed locals and the visiting hunters. The feud has gotten downright personal.

"They want to ruin us," insists David. "They opened up a campground right by our campground, and now this business with the panther..."

In late May or early June the brothers began to notice that something was wrong at Trail Lakes. Between the gift shop and David's house is a large fenced-in area that has been divided into gated pens. Tourists and campers can pay two dollars for a close-up look at the Shealys' menagerie -- goats, emus, peacocks, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and of course, alligators. The brothers considered the fenced area to be relatively safe from predators because there are often people around. Recalls David: "One of my goats had three little ones, and two of them came up missing. Two days later I found one of my goats dead with a puncture wound in its neck."

The Shealys didn't immediately suspect a panther because the cats have never been bold enough to kill their animals. "It didn't even occur to me," says Jack. "I never would have guessed it, which sounds weird, I guess, but I'm telling you we've never seen anything like this before."

Over the next few days, the morning light revealed more macabre scenes. A variety of animals, not just goats, were found dead in their pens. Some had been feasted upon, but others had not been eaten, not even partially. The brothers initially considered the possibility malicious kids were responsible, but some animals had been gnawed, ruling that out. A pack of predatory wild dogs was another possibility. The fencing around the pens was only about four feet high. Dogs easily could leap over that. But predators aren't known for killing their prey for the thrill of it. They kill to eat. The Shealys definitely knew that to be true of panthers, whose diet consists almost exclusively of white-tailed deer and wild hogs. "We understand that we live out here with all the animals and that panthers occasionally get somebody's cat or chicken," David says. "But they never would come that close to the house and stay there long enough to kill a bunch of animals."

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