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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The meeting settled nothing. "They told us just to put the animals in a different pen and the thing would probably go away," remembers David, eyes bugging out. "That night it killed six ducks, a chicken, and four goats."
David wasn't around when Jacobson concocted a scheme to gather empirical evidence that a collared panther was attacking the Shealys' animals. Neither Jack nor Jacobson will say much about how or why they did it (for reasons which will become clear), but basically they decided to use bait to lure the cat into Trail Lakes.
On Friday, June 18, Jacobson pulled his RV into the campground, drove past the gift shop, and parked next to the largest of the gated pens, near a streetlight. Then he and Jack grabbed a 60-pound male goat, selected at random, and tied a rope to the collar it wore. As the sun was setting, around 7:30, they pounded a stake into the ground, directly beneath the streetlight's bulb, and tied the goat to the stake.
Jack trundled off to bed, believing the plan was unlikely to work. Jacobson set up his camera on a tripod just inside an open window in the RV's living area, next to a small table that usually supports his computer. He started the camera, unsure how long he'd have to wait.
Not long. "That cat must have been just sitting there," he recalls, "watching the preparations, waiting for the sun to go down."
If Jack was doubtful about Jacobson's scheme, the filmmaker himself had no such reservations. "Of course I knew that cat would come back," he says confidently. "The only thing I was a bit unsure about was having the window open. I was a bit nervous that I would become dinner." Jacobson, as always, carried a Taurus .38-caliber snubnose revolver for just such an emergency. And next to the camera he positioned a twelve-gauge Remington shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot.
Shortly after dark, only five minutes after Jacobson turned on his camera, the panther showed himself. The terrified goat pulls furiously on his tether as the cat approaches the circle of light. Then the panther suddenly launches himself into the air. In an instant he is on top of the goat, as if mounting him, claws dug into shoulders, pulling the smaller animal to the ground. He sinks his teeth into the goat's neck. The goat bleats weakly, bucks, and desperately tries to pull away. It briefly succeeds.
Whether by accident or design, the panther embeds a claw in the tether and begins to drag the goat toward him. Goat and panther stare at each other down the length of rope, the panther's eyes heavy-lidded, the goat's white-rimmed and wide.
Then the cat pounces again and brings down his prey. Now silent, the goat stops moving as the panther, digging his hind paws into the grass for purchase, wrestles the smaller animal onto its back. Teeth embedded in the goat's neck, the cat looks directly into the camera for the money shot.
Jacobson says his plan was merely to draw the panther into the light so he could record solid evidence that a collared cat was killing the Shealys' livestock. He was hoping the goat wouldn't be harmed. Of course, that's not the way it played out.
The camera's microphone picks up Jacobson's adrenalized breathing, which grows louder as the scene wears on. Now it appears as if the goat is dead. The cat backs off and moves out of the light, but when the goat begins bleating softly, he approaches it again.
At this point Jacobson lets out a throaty yell. He says his intention was to scare the panther away, but fear and essential self-preservation are also apparent in his wordless exclamation. Then he bangs the flat of his hand hard against the RV's side -- a loud pop!
The cat looks up and coolly walks off.
Using his cell phone, Jacobson called Jack from the inside of the RV, and the startled campground owner hurried outside. "I wasn't really sure what to expect, to tell you the truth," Jack says today. "I was just hoping the goat wasn't hurt too bad." The two men untied the bewildered animal and carried it to a warehouse at the rear of the gift shop.
"By the time we got to the door, the goat was walking again," Jacobson says. "When we went back outside, the panther was right outside the back door of the warehouse, waiting for us. He ran off again, but it was a little hard to feel safe in the out-of-doors after that."
Jack doesn't have much to say about the film, and for good reason. He and Jacobson are being investigated by the wildlife commission for felony animal cruelty charges. "There is an investigation," confirms Willie Puz, commission spokesman. "Jan Jacobson, for whatever reason, tied up a goat and the panther came, and now there's an investigation into animal cruelty, and into feeding, molesting, and harassing an endangered species."
Park service employees had heard about the film within days. Jacobson had screened it for the Shealys and some of their friends from Everglades City, and he's sure one of them described it to a park employee. In any case, when Jacobson next showed up at the Shealys' on June 18, wildlife commission and park service officials were there. Immediately they began questioning him about the film. He refused to give them a copy or even show it to them.