Wild and Crazy

David and Jack Shealy couldnt get the government interested in the fact that a fearless panther was killing their animals
Jonathan Postal

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.  

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.'"

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."

He remembers making the connection: "The [Miccosukee] Indians from down the street came by and said, öYour panther got away and it's sitting over by the side of the road.' We said, öWe don't have a panther.' They said, öIt's got a collar and it's missing an ear.'" The next day, June 8, David called the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Park Service and told them he thought a sick panther was attacking his livestock. "The biologist I spoke with said, öThe panther's healthy. The only thing wrong with it is you're probably feeding it,'" he recounts.

There were no killings or panther sightings over the next few days, and the Shealys thought the cat had moved on. Then Trail Lakes campers began seeing the one-eared panther. "It was coming up close to people," David says. "That worried the hell out of us because we had a camper with two little four-year-old girls out here at the time." The Shealys took action. They attempted to scare the animal away, but nothing worked.

"We tried everything," Jack adds. "We threw the firecrackers at it, shined lights at it. It would just sit there, and go away when it felt like it." On June 15 several goats and an emu were found dead. Angry calls to the park service and wildlife commission elicited a visit the following day from a passel of biologists and bureaucrats. By that time, word of the attacks had also spread to Jan Jacobson.

Journeying out of Miami via the Tamiami Trail is rife with symbolism for Jacobson. Whenever he leaves his occasional Miami abode (a yard in Westchester where a friend lets him park the RV), he leaves the city where he studied ecology at the University of Miami for six years. "Upon graduation, I was to be saddled with the family's scrap-metal business for life, and I didn't want that," he recalls. So he never graduated, never obtained a degree. Instead he fled the city.

In 1980 Jacobson bought 6.5 acres in the Loop Road area of the Glades and founded the Everglades Institute. Inspiration for "the Institute," as he calls it, was his love of the Everglades and his passion for intellectual pursuits. He envisioned an educational enterprise for gifted kids, a teacher-training program, and a scientific outpost for researchers.

Jacobson is a former proponent of the environmental movement, a born contrarian (who, naturally, disagrees with that characterization), and the kind of guy who will work references to eighteenth-century economic philosophy and Socratic dialogues into a discussion about meeting for coffee. He's also an outspoken opponent of what he perceives to be the federal government's increasing trend toward socialism.

His strident voice contrasts with his elfin physique as he rails against the National Park Service's hidden agenda and those government biologists ("scientific castrati") willing to subvert objective truth in the service of an evil bureaucracy bent on stealing private land and public money. He calls most environmental activists "Gang Green," and implies they are closet communists all too pleased to cede basic rights and private land to the government in the name of politically correct environmentalism.  

"These people, some of them so-called scientists from groups like the Sierra Club, are willing to defame you if you don't sing along in harmony," he snarls. "It's a nasty trend, and when you look at the kind of regulatory measures that are being imposed on American citizens in the name of öthe environment,' it's very reminiscent of prewar Germany. I'm talking about Agenda Über Alles here."

Jacobson, a bachelor who stands about five and a half feet tall and speaks in a sonorous drone, favors a durable, simple wardrobe, the type that requires little thought and less money: polo shirts tucked into polyester slacks, loafers without socks. His only concessions to vanity are a silver bracelet inlaid with turquoise and a refusal to reveal his age.

Money from the sale of the dreaded family business financed Jacobson's land purchase, after which he recruited a stable of academics to serve as his board of directors and science advisory committee. The institute, which today exists only on paper, has achieved a small measure of success, churning out proposals for better burn practices in the Everglades, among other things, plus working with elementary schools' science programs. At this point, though, Jacobson mainly writes articulate, erudite, anti-government screeds for the Everglades Institute's Website.

On a recent drive out of Miami in his second car, a battered Land Rover, Jacobson turns onto the gravel frontage road bordering the C-31 canal, just west of Krome Avenue off the Tamiami Trail. The bumpy road jostles the maps, scientific and legal papers, car parts, and .38-caliber ammunition crammed into Jacobson's vehicle. After a mile or so, huge chunks of prestressed concrete appear alongside the road -- building materials for the institute. Jacobson paid for eighteen-wheelers to truck the material, donated by a developer, from Miami to the canal, where the South Florida Water Management District agreed to let him store it temporarily. Jacobson bought a crane and unloaded the stuff himself. The concrete, some of it now crumbling, has been there since 1993.

"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.

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."

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.

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.  

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."

David Shealy is not at all pleased with the precedent that was set at his Trail Lakes Campground: "The government conducted an experiment with this cat on my land, with kids and everybody else around. And they cost me a lot of money. I shouldn't have to take this. I'm a goddamn American businessman!"

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