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

"I have been fighting the park service for a decade now, trying to get permission to build my little facility," Jacobson begins. "They had no problems with me until they realized I was not another member of the choir, that I would not sing along in unison. In fact I have been very critical of their management practices, and I believe I'm paying the price for that." He pauses mid-diatribe and points out a tiny plant, which appears to be a clump of green next to his worn leather shoe. "Look closely," he instructs, pointing out a minuscule blue flower. "One of the enchanting things about the Everglades is all the hidden detail. It's one of the reasons why I love it out here." He looks up with a grin and quickly resumes his government-bashing.

Some 30 miles west of Krome Avenue on the Tamiami Trail, just past the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park, Jacobson makes a left onto Loop Road, a 22-mile track (much of it unpaved) inhabited by Miccosukees, seasonal hunters, and about two dozen intrepid souls so enamored of solitary swamp living that they endure the extreme heat, humidity, and overwhelming swarms of mosquitoes. Loop Road, so named because it circles back to the Trail, is verdant -- lush and wet. Herons, egrets, and lazy gators sit still as statues on the swales. Garfish float in slow-moving water that flows through culverts under the road, and occasionally the splash of something larger -- deer or wild hogs, perhaps a panther -- can be heard. Most of Loop Road's history is undocumented, though there are shadowy (and unverifiable) tales about the exploits of poachers, smugglers, moonshiners, and a gambling lodge owned by Al Capone.

Jacobson stops to point out new single-family homes, owned by members of the Miccosukee tribe, that dot the south side of the road for the first couple of miles. "The Miccosukees are allowed to tear down whatever they want and build where they want, but I can't build an educational institution?" he asks bitterly, noting that the Miccosukees can bypass the permitting process he has fought for a decade in his fruitless efforts to build on his land.

David and Jack Shealy couldn’t get the government interested in the fact that a fearless panther was killing their animals
Jonathan Postal
David and Jack Shealy couldn’t get the government interested in the fact that a fearless panther was killing their animals
David Shealy says he’s the world’s authority on the legendary Everglades Skunk Ape, which makes the Trail Lakes Campground a must-see for aficionados of classic roadside attractions
David Shealy says he’s the world’s authority on the legendary Everglades Skunk Ape, which makes the Trail Lakes Campground a must-see for aficionados of classic roadside attractions

Ten miles along Loop Road, Jacobson swings onto a worn dirt trail and pulls into his property. Two shopworn cardboard cylinders he keeps in the Land Rover contain tattered blueprints detailing his vision: gifted students and teachers living and working in geodesic domes that contain laboratories and classrooms, studying the nearby pond, cypress swamp, willow swamp, and hardwood hammock.

The reality is somewhat less ideal. Rusted trailers in varying states of disrepair line the path leading to the pond. A 28-foot-long swamp buggy with tank treads decomposes in the woods. Two Land Rovers and a Mercedes sedan, all emblazoned with the words "Everglades Institute," sit idle near the crane Jacobson used to offload his concrete. An air plant nestles in the crane's rusted bumper. Jacobson still holds out hope for his institute's construction, but in the meantime he's become a familiar sight along Tamiami Trail, his Caesar haircut and angular face as distinctive as the worn Land Rover and ancient RV.


"I'd seen him, and I guess I knew him, but I didn't know him," says Jack Shealy. Jacobson learned about the Shealys' panther problem from a mutual acquaintance, and stopped by the campground offering to help. "You can say what you want, maybe he's a little strange or whatever," Jack muses, "but that Jacobson was right about everything he said about that panther. He said it was sick and that firecrackers wouldn't work and that it would keep coming back. He was right about all of it, unlike the so-called experts who basically ignored us until they couldn't anymore."

The Shealys were wary of Jacobson, but found kinship in his views on the federal government, the park service in particular. They explained the situation to him, and he returned to the campground on June 16, the day after several goats and the emu were killed.

Jacobson always carries with him a Canon GL-2 digital movie camera, which he keeps handy for shooting footage of Everglades flora and fauna. On this day, though, he documented the meeting between a surly Jack Shealy and several representatives of the National Park Service and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. Jack, arms crossed, stands next to a rack of Samurai swords in the gift shop, urging the officials to remove the killer cat. Wandering in and out of the frame are at least five different officials. Jack argues that the animal is sick, at one point saying, "What about me shining a light on him and throwing firecrackers at him and him not even flinching? There's something else going on here. That cat is dangerous, I'm telling you."

A wildlife commission officer repeatedly tells Shealy the panther can't be removed.

"Y'all have no responsibility over that cat?" Jack asks incredulously.

"We can't remove it," answers the officer. "The panther is doing what it's supposed to do." Later the same officer says, "We can't remove the animal and we can't provide fencing."

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