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

Jacobson is outraged at the government's animal-cruelty investigation, but he also seems smugly pleased that his archenemies have done something so ridiculous. "If they're worried about cruelty to the goat, shouldn't they be investigating the panther?" he asks mockingly. "And didn't I simply film what was already going on -- albeit in a controlled environment?"

Following a house call from a veterinarian, the goat has returned to good health, fully recovered from several puncture wounds and a serious scare, and is once again on display. Nonetheless, Jacobson has drawn the ire of animal-rights activists who heard about the film when the fracas made news in Southwest Florida. The managing director of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida wrote a letter to Collier County State Attorney Stephen Russell correlating animal abuse with child abuse, pointing out that Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer tortured animals as well as humans, and asking that Jacobson and the Shealys be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Though he won't admit it, all of this is just fine with Jacobson, who dismisses animal-rights activists, most environmentalists, and all National Park Service employees as agents of "creeping socialism." He seems to relish the prospect of finally battling his enemies in a courtroom, and talks of setting precedents that could eventually lead to even bigger legal battles over portions of the Endangered Species Act he views as unconstitutional.

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

The Shealys have more immediate concerns: the loss of fourteen goats, six ducks, four emus, and a chicken worth an estimated $4000. "I want someone to pay me for my animals that they let die," David declares. "They had a damn collar on this cat!"

No one will be paying out any money. So says Big Cypress National Preserve spokesman Bob DeGross. The Big Cypress administrative headquarters are housed in a converted motel on the Tamiami Trail just a couple of miles west of the Shealys' campground. DeGross's office was once a kitchenette, and still has putty-colored linoleum on the floor and wood-laminate cabinets. He's only been at Big Cypress for about a year, though he worked at Everglades National Park for the previous decade.

The cautious, soft-spoken DeGross insists that the agencies responded properly, posting people at Trail Lakes (but only after Jacobson's directorial premiere) and eventually capturing the panther. FP60 was trapped twenty days after the first call from the Shealys.

As it turns out, FP60 was indeed a very sick cat, malnourished and mangy, suffering from a jaw injury and a possible skull fracture, along with the loss of an ear (likely suspects include another male panther or a car). The cat now resides at a wildlife refuge north of Jacksonville, where biologists will determine whether it can ever be returned to the wild.

Why did no one from Big Cypress or the state wildlife commission seem to believe the Shealys' assertions that the cat was sick? And why did the agencies take so long to respond after reports that the cat was approaching campers, some of whom had children? DeGross and commission spokesman Willie Puz respond with variations on the same theme. DeGross: "In any situation like this, we listen to the people who call us, but then we have to verify the situation ourselves. When we started to see the things the Shealys saw, we decided to capture the cat." Puz: "After verifying that the cat was unresponsive to aversive conditioning, we took appropriate action within an appropriate time frame."

Puz admits that, because the panther was collared, wildlife commission biologists were able to determine early on that FP60 was probably responsible for the Shealys' loss of livestock. "But we had to try aversive conditioning -- basically attempts to scare the cat away -- before we could just capture it," Puz says. "And at some point our people noticed that the cat did in fact appear to be injured or sick."

Though it is not at all common, Florida panthers have attacked livestock in the past, and this was not the first time a cat has been removed after failing to respond to "aversive conditioning." This past March, for example, a mature female and two yearlings were relocated from the Loop Road community of Pinecrest after numerous complaints from residents.

DeGross says the park service, the wildlife commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working on plans to deal with the steady increase in panther encounters. "We are in the process of formulating a öFlorida Panther Response,'" ventures DeGross. "We know the [panther] population is growing and that we're going to have more encounters. The challenge is determining what's acceptable behavior from the cats."

Authorities do face an ethically complicated task -- the regulatory resuscitation of an endangered predator, or "playing God," as Jacobson puts it. But it's also a documented fact that Jack Shealy tried, time and again, to convince the authorities that the collared panther stalking his campground was sick and dangerous. And he was right.

"All I can say is that there was no vendetta and no attempt to get the Shealys' land that drove the way that we dealt with the panther," DeGross says. "We all know how important our reaction to these situations is. Everything we do with the panther right now is precedent-setting, precisely because the population is getting healthier and mature males are starting to seek out new territory."

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