Florida Panther's Return Spells Doom for Gladesmen

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Jack Laban swears a cat was out here raising hell just this morning. Mosquitoes slurp blood through the 94-year-old shirtless Gladesman's baggy skin as he hobbles across a landfill of empty Pepsi cans and settles into a folding chair. The former Miami plumber with a full head of white hair uses a rope for a belt and keeps a .45 in his scuffed brown boot. He's lived out here in the Big Cypress Preserve for 35 years -- one of the last people to hold out and not sell their land to the government.

A Heinz 57 mutt barks madly in the front yard, apropos of nothing. Despite this guard dog, Laban is so paranoid that he rarely leaves his boarded-up house, which is 12 feet wide and looks like a trailer.

Although the father of two thinks grifters are out to steal his stuff, there are at least two things wrong with that assumption. First, there are only five residences left out here on Turner River Road, a dusty, chalk-colored path that forces Google Maps to go wonky and can make a pristine, light-green hatchback quickly resemble a grape dropped in playground sand.

Second, it's unclear what anyone would steal from a man who lives without hot water or air conditioning. Even if intrepid thieves made it past the yellow-haired dog and powered through the foul, sour stench, they'd likely turn back when they saw the house was overrun with opossums and rattlers that sometimes break into Laban's packets of powdered milk. Although he used to shoot at them, ricocheting bullets posed a threat. Now the critters pretty much live there too.

That's all fine by him. But if there's one animal that Laban can't tolerate, it's the Florida panther. Ever since geneticists and conservationists conspired to bulk up the federally endangered population 15 years ago, he says panthers have practically overrun the area and created a nuisance.

"No good those cats ever did nobody," he says before spitting onto the sand.

Laban and other rural Florida residents say the Florida panther's rebound is destroying their way of life. Gladesmen believe a monster cat created in 1995 to save the species is bigger, more aggressive, and multiplying rapidly.

But some wildlife officials maintain the problem is all in their heads. "When people say they're seeing all these panthers on their property, very often it's the same one coming back again and again," says Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They're notoriously overcounted by people."

But Onorato does acknowledge that the cat's population is increasing and that the numbers have increased from an estimated 30 just 15 years ago to somewhere between 100 and 180 today. The quantity of cats has actually reached carrying capacity south of the Caloosahatchee River, which cuts 67 miles across Florida, starting near Fort Myers.

He is hoping a female will have the gumption to go north. But what are Floridians supposed to do when the apex predator leaves the sparsely populated areas around Alligator Alley and heads into the 'burbs?

In May, a Port St. Lucie man was forced to ask that very question. He saw a panther and her babies crossing the street near his house and reported it to the state. When a return call never came, he took to the internet for help.

"What do I do now?" he pleaded.

"Get a gun, learn how to use it, and be prepared to shoot," came the response.

Pumas have ranged throughout North America for more than 400,000 years. Scientists believe what we know today as the Florida panther fled for the American Southeast about 18,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age turned Canada and the northern U.S. into a sheet of ice.

"The restoration project was deliriously successful, and the 'Save the Panther' license plate will be a relic to our grandchildren."

Back in 1995, the cat was almost kaput. Demographic models showed there was a 95 percent chance of extinction in two decades if nothing changed. Isolated from other subspecies of puma, the cats were inbreeding and growing weak. Knowing that the beloved creature was about to go the way of the dodo bird, scientists and conservationists were left with few options.

So an animal researcher named Stephen O'Brien cooked up a biological Hail Mary. The Cornell-bred geneticist was known for his work on endangered species, including cheetahs, lions, koalas, and humpback whales.

"People said, 'Oh you're not saving the Florida panther; you're replacing it,' " he remembers. "But the restoration project was deliriously successful, and the 'Save the Panther' license plate will be a relic to our grandchildren."

To Spanish explorers, our efforts to restore the panther would have been hilarious. They knew the animal only as a plentiful pest. Hernando DeSoto noted that Native Americans would post guards on their burial grounds to prevent the cats from eating bodies. An ornithologist named it in 1890, and for years, the Florida panther's territory looked like a map of the Confederate United States.

Then, development pushed it down to the swamp. The only people living there were Gladesmen -- a subset of the Florida cracker who collected wood and fashionable feather plumes, forging a living off the Everglades' bounty.

In 1936, Les and Bill Piper, two former bootleggers from Detroit, moved to Bonita Springs, just north of Naples, and opened a roadside zoo that catered to tourists. At Everglades Wonder Gardens, the Piper brothers bred cats from Costa Rica with those they had caught in Hendry County. According to a 1965 letter from Roger Allin, then superintendent of Everglades National Park, these cats ended up in the gene pool as part of an unpublicized repopulation program. The park received two cats in 1957 and five more between 1965 and 1968.

Although the park was scrambling to up the panther's numbers, the public was mostly unaware of the population crisis until March 28, 1968, when a photo ran in the Citrus County Chronicle of Inverness Deputy Sheriff Lloyd Sheltman posing with a dead cat. It started a public outcry, and when Richard Nixon passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Florida panther was among the first animals to get federal protection.

Floridians considered the animal a state treasure; in 1980, schoolchildren chose it over manatees and alligators as our official animal. Management of the 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge just east of Naples costs $1.2 million to $1.7 million a year.

So when geneticists suggested watering it down one October night in 1992, people cried. But there were only about 30 extremely inbred cats left, and even the most hardened purist couldn't ignore that. The Florida panther would have to become "the Florida panther -- sort of."

A lanky houndsman named Roy McBride flew in eight female Texas cougars. The idea was that they would breed with the Florida cats until they stopped having deformities like holes in their hearts and testicles that didn't descend. Then the cougars would be shipped back to the Lone Star state. Within only a few generations, the plan worked.

"Every single one of the malformations went away," says O'Brien, the geneticist. "And areas that ecologists were telling us were unsuitable for panthers began to be occupied as more and more panthers were produced."

But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) knew to expect problems. When other states tried similar programs, a sort of mass hysteria ensued. Inevitably the "new" animal became a scapegoat for the people who would have to deal with it.

Carter Niemeyer, who helped breed the endangered Northern Rockies Grey Wolf with a Canadian subspecies in 1987, warned of the problems that would arise after breeding the panther.

"Public perception is that these wolves from Canada were larger, meaner and a different subspecies than was historically present," he told the FWC four years ago. "Anecdotal stories circulated in the northern Rockies that the original wolves were notably smaller and easier to live with."

So when O'Brien called the new Florida panther the "Arnold Schwarzenegger of cats" in an interview with National Public Radio in 2010, wildlife officials were exasperated. To them, it gave credence to the very phenomenon they had tried to prevent.

"It gives us heartburn every time he says that," biologist Onorato says. "I'd like to see someone with two cats in front of them be able to pick out which was a Florida panther and which was a Texas cat."

But this sort of Panther Pepsi challenge isn't possible. The last pure-blood cat died in 2011, by O'Brien's estimation. He trudges around in white orthopedic sneakers during his current day job as a Nova Southeastern University researcher, but talk about his panther work clearly still gives the 70-year-old great joy. "I hope I'm still here when we start seeing panthers in parking lots," he says. "That's when we'll know we've succeeded."

The attack felt like a whack from a two-by-four, says Byron Maharrey, who is 77 years old. He was wearing long johns, a heavy camo shirt, and a ghillie suit when it happened. The outfit made him look like Chewbacca with a Remington.

It was 10:47 a.m. on March 17 in rural Polk County, and the turkey hunter had been sitting in a dewy patch of purple pond flowers since about 4 in the morning. He recalls "waiting for the woods to settle" about 20 miles from Lake Wales. Leaning against a myrtle bush, his mind numbed and his trigger-finger itched for a gobbler.

And then it happened. Maharrey fell forward off his chair and onto his 12-gauge. Just as quickly as he was pushed down, Maharrey stood up. There was a four-inch gash on his left shoulder and two puncture wounds in his thigh that had yet to start searing.

The quick glimmer of a tawny-colored cat scampering into some bushes 40 yards away was all he needed to see. After all, he'd been hunting in the area for 33 years. He knew what a panther looked like.

Maharrey says he was afraid to report the attack to the state, so he just slapped on some Bactine and scheduled some rabies shots. Ultimately he filed a report three weeks later. "I wish I hadn't waited, but I wanted to make sure I was comfortable with what I was getting into," he says. "I knew once I rung that bell, it couldn't be unrung."

The attack made headlines across Florida, but people were understandably skeptical. The government estimated there were only about 100 of these cats alive. They generally stay away from human beings, perhaps their only real predator. And according to the state, there has never been a confirmed attack on a human.

Maharrey is one of maybe 50 people alive who consider themselves part of a unique subculture at odds with the state.

In an April 9 news release following Maharrey's report, the Fish and Wildlife Commission also questioned the wait. "It was not feasible to confirm the details due to lapse of time from when the event occurred to when the report was made to the FWC," the agency concluded.

Although he believes he might have erred by hesitating, Maharrey had legitimate reason. He's one of maybe 50 people alive who consider themselves part of a unique subculture at odds with the state.

In 2011, a human camel named Frank Denninger fought to get the Gladesmen culture recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Until that point, the 66-year-old Hialeah native thought that culture meant only high culture -- like operas and symphonies. But when anthropologist Jennifer Azorelli interviewed him for an ethnographic study in 2005, she told him he was part of something special.

That led him to contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the people with the power to get certain places protected from government interference. He believed that if he could make his friends into a protected group, the government might cease construction projects intended to restore the Everglades' natural water flow.

Denninger grew up the son of a mechanic and a housewife. He had started off poaching frogs in the Glades as a boy before graduating to deer. As a young hunter, he heard stories from older boys about the Fakahatchee Strand, a place that author Susan Orlean once referred to as "the most dangerous swamp in the world." When he first went there at age 16, he was deathly terrified. But soon, he was obsessed.

Today, he lives in Hialeah but heads to the Everglades every chance he gets. He always has something pouring out of his mouth, whether it's smoke from the prodigious cheap cigarettes he consumes or stories that generally seem to involve too many rum and Cokes, or, after recently discovering the internet, requests to pull up Gladesmen folk songs on Spotify.

As he walked through the Picayune Strand State Forest -- just south of the Panther Refuge and east of Naples -- on a recent May day, vaporized mosquito repellent emanated from a hipside ThermaCELL, leaving a trail that smelled like old-timey hair tonic.

Nicotine seems to sustain him: He can endure a five-hour trip through the swamp fueled only by a single 11-ounce water bottle and not even so much as a bite from a sandwich. When he does eat, Denninger prefers steak and "salad" -- iceberg lettuce with about a pound of Thousand Island dressing poured on top. It's a veritable miracle that he's in such good shape.

Perhaps being in the wilderness keeps you young despite curious habits. And Denninger, a retired Air Force mechanic, is in the woods as much as possible. He needs to add a quart of oil to his leaky '84 pickup every time he heads up Tamiami Trail but makes the trip as much as financially possible -- a couple of times per month. He is also a smooth talker who dutifully attends state meetings and sometimes coaches his fellow Gladesmen on how to interact with officials in a way that's politically correct.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically conducts studies regarding old buildings and archaeological sites, but it contracted Azorelli to conduct an ethnographic study of the Gladesmen. It was the first such study that the corps has done in the Southeast.

Once something gets on the National Registry of Historic Places, any project that alters it is highly scrutinized. It's basically a list of places integral to certain cultures.

So Denninger made the undertaking the project of his life. Practices like closing the Fakahatchee to hunting and cordoning off conservation areas were making it so the Gladesmen had nowhere to engage in activities like hunting, swamp buggy riding, and piloting airboats, he says.

"I really complained that due to these regulatory pressures over the past 25 years, that they're destroying a culture we're just finding out exists and putting a lot of uneasiness and anxiety on people who've never felt it before," he says.

But in the end, the corps only deemed two Gladesmen staples -- a fishing camp off Krome Avenue called Mack's and the Florida Airboat Association -- as possibilities for inclusion. Not only that but they're merely considered important to the region in the registry, which makes them the lowest priority for protection, as compared to something like a national landmark. Now Denninger is out of options.

A recent state survey showed the vast majority of Floridians support the panther restoration project. Denninger thinks bureaucrats are tricking little old ladies into buying license plates even though the suburban retirees are not the ones who have to deal with them -- yet.

"They praise the wildlife to try to get people enamored with the wildlife and don't tell you they're dangerous-ass animals," he says. "And people won't wake up until someone gets eaten."

Andy Pis walked just a few steps ahead of his girlfriend, Jami, a petite fellow hunter with jet black hair. He was 19 years old, no inhibitions and all youth. Rain did not deter him. His leased land abutting Bonita Springs was flooded, so he and Jami trudged through the muck toward the land owned by their neighbors, Les and Bill Piper of the Everglades Wonder Gardens.

Then Jami gasped. Andy, a bearded Gladesman with a wide face and broad shoulders, turned to his left and saw two emerald-green eyes peeking from behind a levee. The male panther -- the first big cat that Pis had ever seen -- let out a guttural growl and ran off.

That was 1989, and the stunned Pis couldn't figure out what the animal had been doing there. He was clued in five minutes later, when he stumbled upon six deer. "[The panther] was mad because we ruined his hunt," he explains.

But Pis, now a 44-year-old Robert Downey Jr. doppelganger with deep lines in his forehead and a penchant for profanity, says the tables have turned. He manages a 3,000-acre tract of land in Hendry County, where he leads hunting excursions. He says he's seen 61 panthers in his lifetime, adding that panthers are now stealing his prey.

He even claims that a population crash is imminent and that there are hardly any deer left south of the Tamiami Trail.

He carries snapshots of desiccated deer buried under leaves and of panthers wherever he goes. He flips through a photostream on his iPhone of bloody entrails and startled cats like it was the most normal thing in the world.

He even claims that a population crash is imminent and that there are hardly any deer left south of the Tamiami Trail, a claim supported by a 2013 FWC report. Every year, the agency does an aerial swoop of the land and counts the deer it spots. Last year, it was zero. The agency cited predation by panthers, bobcats, pythons, bears, and alligators as possible reasons for the startling result. Pis takes this report as evidence that he's not imagining things.

"It's not a Florida cracker walking around going, 'Holy shit, I haven't even seen a track for three miles,' " he says. "It's a fuckin' plane flying transects."

And hunters aren't the only ones complaining. Even FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy thinks the efforts to bring back the panther are unfairly affecting her livelihood.

Priddy's grandfather moved to Florida from Georgia in the 1940s. "Back then, people looked at it as their version of the West," she says. "My family were adventurous people." Eventually he purchased a ranch in Immokalee. It was passed down to her father and, after he suffered a debilitating stroke, to her. Priddy, who speaks with a Southern drawl and has auburn hair with bangs, says that the first panther kill ever recorded by Fish and Wildlife was on her family's land in 1988. It was a harbinger of things to come.

In September 2011, University of Florida researcher Caitlin Jacobs put radio tags on 400 calves that lived on Priddy's 9,300-acre plot. After two years, the researcher concluded panthers were killing about 5.3 percent of her cattle.

Cows cost about $1.25 per pound on the hoof in Florida, and the average weight is 600 to 800 pounds. So this means each loss has cost Priddy about $875. She won't say how many animals she owns -- "that's like telling what you have in your bank account" -- but the study concludes that at least ten of the animals have been killed by panthers in two years, meaning the loss totals $8,750.

"If you start adding it up, it's a substantial amount of money," UF's Jacobs says. "I'm not really sure how smaller ranchers or those who lease can sustain that impact."

Priddy blames the loss on the shrinking deer population. "If they don't have enough deer or other prey," she says, "nature's gonna take over."

Lucky for her, this past April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a pilot plan that could alleviate her losses. It will allow South Florida ranchers $22.30 per acre per year for hosting panther habitat -- and will eventually expand upstate.

Pis, the deer hunter, thinks the FWC doesn't have the best interest of the cat in mind. He believes that if there are more, people will just kill them, and that officials are out to expand the panther program only to collect a paycheck on the backs of bleeding-heart citygoers.

"All these liberals see are these beautiful blue eyes -- green, whatever," he says. "Either way, I'd love to shoot one right between the two of 'em. I hate the fuckin' things."

It's easier to find a panther track than you might think. On a recent Tuesday, Tim Spaulding stopped to point out a heart-shaped pair belonging to a mama and her baby. "They show up best in mud," he says. "But when you can see them in the dirt like this, that means they're fresh."

The 64-year-old turkey hunter has lived out here in the Big Cypress ever since he had a choice. He has a bright-red face and what would be called a beer belly if he ever drank. A jiggly pouch of skin hangs under his jaw. In fact, he kind of looks like a turkey. Even though he wears big, thick glasses, he can spot tracks in the dust from afar, sometimes jumping out of his four-by-four to take a closer look.

Spaulding first came to the Everglades with his dad to hunt on weekends. But soon the land took precedent over father-son bonding. He started finding his own rides home with other hunters while his dad headed back to South Miami to attend Methodist services on Sundays. "For me," he explains into the middle distance, "God was out here."

But paradise started to take a nose-dive when the government began trying to protect the panther, he says. The once-lawless land of the Everglades has today been straitjacketed with restrictions.

Still, Spaulding has given up a lot to stay here. As soon as he turned 20, he hightailed it from the city to the middle of nowhere with his high-school sweetheart in tow. The farm girl, who was from Lake City, grudgingly moved out to a trailer on a five-acre lot that her soon-to-be husband had bought for $17,000.

She couldn't take the isolation, though, and soon left him for a guy who lived in Everglades City. His second wife didn't last much longer. A police dispatcher from Naples, she moved to the Big Cypress and became a drunk and a pill addict, he explains. Again, he was alone.

But Spaulding has stayed out here because he loves it more than any person. And that's why it's so painful for him to accept that the resurgence of the panther is killing his way of life. Little by little, he points out, the park service has closed off portions of the Big Cypress to people like him, because they want to "make it safe for the panther."

The latest blow came in 2012, when officials banned swamp buggies and other off-road vehicles. Today, Spaulding is relegated to a souped-up golf cart that can be taken only on approved trails. Although he moved here because it was one of the last blank spots on the map, it's now regulated like a tourist attraction. This, he says, is due to the panther.

"All my life I've been able to ride wherever I want, and now I have to ride the same trail every evening," he says. "I like panthers, and I like seeing their tracks, but I don't like that they're doing this to me."

"A lot of people have gotten discouraged, because it's getting harder for us to do what we've always done."

Even if life in the Big Cypress has changed, Spaulding refuses to leave. He's transformed the 800-square-foot home he once occupied into a two-story fortress. He's grandfathered in, because he owned the land before 1973. By government decree, no new properties will ever be built in the Big Cypress. And because he has no kids, it'll be turned over to the government when he dies.

"A lot of people have gotten discouraged, because it's getting harder for us to do what we've always done," he says. "But I can't move. I'd kill someone if I lived in the city."

He has a third wife now, a stern woman named Roberta who doesn't answer when asked if she likes living out here. About a half-mile away, some wretched opossum is probably running amok in her neighbor Jack Laban's house.

Roberta and Tim Spaulding have carved out a peaceful existence in a home stocked with taxidermied animals on the wall, deli meat in the fridge, and Shotgun News in the bathroom's magazine rack. Their only marital squabbles seem to center on a Bass Pro Shops credit card. Even if Roberta likes the Big Cypress no more than Spaulding's first two wives, she's handling the weirdness pretty well.

"It takes a special kind of woman to live out here," Spaulding explains.

While biologists like Dave Onorato and Carter Niemeyer are quick to dismiss the Gladesmen and other rural people like them as victims of mass panther hysteria, neither acknowledges that guys like Spaulding have an almost quasi-religious connection with the lands they inhabit.

Simply put: They're not going to leave for anything or anybody.

The Gladesmen will cling to whatever bits of their culture the state lets them keep. But eventually, in this case, man is almost certain to lose. While the panther bounces back from near-extinction, it will be this group of Floridians who disappear.

"Every time there are new rules, people like me lose, and we don't get anything back," Spaulding says. "For now, I'm still able to piss in my front yard and shoot a gun, but who knows what will happen in the future?"

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