The Extreme Move That Saved Florida Panthers From Extinction

Craig Pittman on a Pivotal Moment for a Majestic Species

In 1975, the Dallas Cowboys football team was losing to the Minnesota Vikings in a divisional playoff when the Cowboys’ quarterback, Roger Staubach, begged for divine intervention. With 24 seconds left in the game, he dropped back, launched a desperate 50-yard spiral downfield and then mut­tered a “Hail Mary” prayer as he watched it fly.

The ball found its target, receiver Drew Pearson, who caught it just inside the five-yard line and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. Thus the Cowboys beat the Vikings and the phrase “Hail Mary pass” entered America’s pop culture lexicon.

“I could have said ‘Our Father’ or ‘Glory be,’” Staubach said years later. “But I don’t think ‘Our Father’ would have carried on.”

In 1992, Florida’s panthers needed a Hail Mary pass.

The panther experts gathered once again at White Oak Plan­tation. The owner had installed a bar, a classic one from Chicago that was rumored to have come from Al Capone’s favorite gin joint. It was on the same hall as the bowling alley. Right next to the bar and the bowling alley was a lecture hall with expen­sive wood paneling and a set of tables spread around.

The clock was ticking down to zero. The game was nearly over.

That’s where the experts now congregated, although they probably felt more like sitting in the bar and drowning their sorrows.

As they filed into the lecture hall at White Oak on Octo­ber 21, 1992, they each wore a grim look. Captive breeding had failed. The kittens selected as having the best genetic back­ground turned out to be just as messed up as the others. Pan­thers were teetering on the brink of extinction and the bright minds studying the problem had not only failed to save them, but had actually made things worse.

Outside the weather was gorgeous. The chance of rain was zero. The high temperature was a cool (for Florida) 66 de­grees, meaning no mosquitoes to bother you on a nature hike. But inside? Nothing but storm clouds.

The clock was ticking down to zero. The game was nearly over.

Given the chance to sit anywhere in the room, everyone di­vided into their own tribes: biologists at one table, bureaucrats at another, computer geeks at a third and so on.

The tension felt palpable, and much of it centered on wildlife biologist David Maehr.

Deb Jansen and the other members of the National Park Ser­vice staff had repeatedly demanded that Maehr notify them when he took a capture team into Big Cypress. Jansen was doing her own capture work now, and didn’t want Maehr interfering.

But her demand was one that Maehr had repeatedly ignored—to the point that his boss had sent him a scorching memo about it. Yet he continued with the same behavior. The state’s own capture team was on his side.

“The average Joe could go there anytime—but we had to ask permission,” McCown told me. “I didn’t understand that.”

Maehr’s team members were also mad at Roelke. Despite Maehr’s objections, she had pushed the captive breeding idea, to the point of selecting which kittens should be cap­tured. Roelke was convinced that Maehr had turned every­one against her. When her old partners on the capture team looked at her, she said, the looks they gave her made her feel like “the evil Antichrist.”

Roelke was so upset that she was ready to not only leave panthers behind, but leave the country. She had accepted a job in Africa as the chief veterinarian for Tanzania’s national park system. She was scheduled to leave for the new job before the conference began, but she postponed her trip for this one last White Oak discussion.

What could anyone do to pull the panthers out of their extinction spiral?

As she looked around the room, she saw signs of nothing but defeat.

“They all shook their heads and said, ‘It’s over. It’s done,’” she recalled.

Roelke had at least one friend in the room: Stephen O’Brien, the geneticist from the National Cancer Institute, who had started working with Roelke on cheetahs and now collabo­rated with her on panthers. He considered her work crucial to diagnosing what was wrong with the panthers and figuring out how to save them.

But he could see, too, how distressed she was at how things had worked out. At one point in the meeting, he said, she leaned over to him with tears trickling down her cheeks and said, “At least they’re finally listening to me.”

That left the big question: Given the failure of captive breed­ing, usually the last option to save a dying species, what could anyone do to pull the panthers out of their extinction spiral?

This was the dusky seaside sparrow story all over again, only worse. This wasn’t some drab little bird. This was Florida’s state animal, the mascot of schools galore, the icon on scores of li­cense plates.

The only thing left to try, the only option for a “Hail Mary” pass, was something no one had ever tried before. Something nearly unthinkable. It could potentially save the panthers—but it might also unravel the legal protections surrounding them.

*

The record is unclear about who first brought it up.

Nobody I talked to was sure about who was desperate enough to mention it. O’Brien thinks it might have been Roelke. That makes sense to me. She was always outspoken, and now that she was leaving, she had no reason to hold back. She would never see these people again. Why not speak her mind? But Lacy thinks it was Ulie Seal, always an advocate for pursuing an idea to its logical conclusion, no matter whether it was legal or wise. That makes sense too.

Whoever it was, the two-word phrase he or she uttered was something no one had wanted to think about.

Genetic augmentation.

Usually when people in Florida talk about “augmentation,” they’re talking about plastic surgery—specifically breast or butt implants. Florida has a big market for that kind of augmenta­tion. Billboards lining US 19 on part of the Gulf Coast tout the docs who can give you deeper cleavage. Meanwhile vans drive around Miami adorned with wraparound paintings of women with voluptuous buttocks barely contained by thong bikinis, suggesting this bounteous booty can be yours—for the right price, of course.

Ulie Seal’s rescue team had first discussed this a year earlier at a conference on panthers in Washington, DC. They dismissed the idea pretty quickly because it would cause nothing but prob­lems. Bringing in outside animals could erase local adaptations, disrupt the native animals’ social structure and spread parasites. One other consequence: “Creation of a false sense of manage­ment accomplishment.”

Moving animals or plants for any reason “is fraught with danger and should be strongly discouraged,” they concluded. Nevertheless, they agreed then, there might be a rare set of cir­cumstances that could constitute an exception to this rule.

Now, facing the failure of captive breeding, they had to ask: Is this one of those exceptions? Yes, they decided, it was—mostly because they had no other choice.

They recognized that this solution was legally questionable. A panther bred with some other kind of puma might produce offspring that would not be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The act gives the Fish and Wildlife Service the power to pro­tect species, subspecies and distinct population segments, as well as their habitats. What the act does not address is half breeds—genetic hybrids. By pushing the purebred panther to become more of a melting pot for puma genes, corporations or special interest groups could cite that as a reason to knock the panther off the endangered list. They could use it as an excuse to open the already shrinking habitat for rampant development. There could even be a return of the hunting season.

The lack of rules covering hybrids is the reason why no one tried crossbreeding the dusky seaside sparrow before it disap­peared. The half breeds would lack any legal reason to keep people from shooting them.

Yet, as that example showed, keeping a bloodline pure to maintain legal protection was a pointless exercise if the animal ceased to exist. There would be nothing left to protect.

But this isn’t that kind of augmentation. Genetic augmentation doesn’t make your body parts bigger and squishier and sexier. Instead, it’s all about fixing a fouled-up gene pool by introduc­ing something fresh and new.

How do you genetically augment the poor Florida panther? By bringing in some other kind of puma to breed with it.

At that point, O’Brien said, having acknowledged the dire re­ality they were all facing, there was a shift in the debate. Instead of arguing over whether to bring in another kind of puma to breed with the panthers, they started arguing over which puma to use.

The choices: North American mountain lions versus South American pumas.

To O’Brien, logic dictated going after the puma subspecies with the healthiest genes. The South American pumas met that requirement, he said. For proof of how well they would mix with panther genes, he contended, look no further than the Piper cats in the Everglades. Their clean genes saved the fading pan­thers in the River of Grass, producing hybrids with no kinked tails or vanishing testicles.

But others pushed for sending McBride back to Texas to cap­ture some of the cougars he had spent decades pursuing. Al­though American pumas had a generally poor sperm count, there were other, historic reasons to favor Texas cougars. What we now call the Florida panther once ranged across the whole South. In those days, the Florida cats probably bred with the occasional Texas cat. Their habitats overlapped, and so at some point their genetic material had probably mingled.

One person who wasn’t debating South versus North Ameri­can pumas? Maehr, who still didn’t see the need for this discus­sion, O’Brien said.

“He was in denial about the data,” O’Brien said. “He thought it was just hand-waving by a bunch of scientists who wanted to make themselves famous by publishing a lot of papers.”

Even five years later, in his book, Maehr made it clear he remained unpersuaded. He continued arguing that genetic augmentation was unnecessary, based on bad assumptions and fraught with the potential to cause new problems.

The extinction clock was still ticking closer and closer to zero.

Finally, after a three-handed debate, the group backing genetic augmentation with a bunch of Texas cougars won the day. But that wasn’t the end of it, because of course once the scientists had reached a consensus, then the bureaucrats started second-guessing everything.

Meanwhile, the extinction clock was still ticking closer and closer to zero.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service had a particularly hard time saying yes. This would be the first time ever that the feds had attempted to save an animal from extinction by breeding it with a close relative. Rare is the bureaucrat who wants to be first, especially with a closely watched project that could eas­ily go awry.

Finally the delay passed from the realm of annoying to dan­gerous. In April 1994, nine scientists wrote to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and to US Fish and Wildlife Service di­rector Mollie Beattie. They said there was a plan that could save the panther, yet some higher-ups in the agency had “conspired to frustrate this objective.” Their letter spelled out who would be at fault if panthers disappeared. That finally ended the foot-dragging.

Two years after Seal’s group proposed it, the Fish and Wild­life Service produced a two-page memo that officially approved the experiment. Genetic augmentation—or as it was now being called, “genetic restoration”—would be all right so long as state biologists exercised careful scientific control to guarantee that the kittens “most closely resemble the species as listed.”

*

In January 1995, all the bureaucrats involved gave Roy Mc­Bride the green light to go capture eight female cougars from Texas and turn them loose in South Florida.

That month was a big one for the government trying to re­vive big predators. Just as McBride got his approval, a truck car­ried fourteen Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park, which had been completely wolf-less since the last one was killed off in the 1920s. Within seven years there were more than one hundred of them.

Although McBride and Maehr didn’t see eye to eye on some things, they agreed on genetic augmentation, or genetic resto­ration, or (as some journalists were now calling it) “outbreed­ing,” which made it sound like the polar opposite of inbreeding.

No matter the name, “I wasn’t particularly fond of the idea,” McBride told me.

But because he’s a professional, McBride agreed to carry out the assignment anyway. After all, it kept him busy doing the thing he loved, hunting pumas.

He headed to Texas to do what he’d been hired to do, in the place he knew better than anyone else. His only instructions were to be sure the cougars were all young, healthy females, from places far enough apart to ensure they weren’t closely re­lated to each other. The game commission wanted females be­cause males would roam around more, making them harder to track, McBride explained to me years later. Females would be more likely to stay put near where they were released, he said.

If this were a movie, we would now see a montage featur­ing the most visually striking imagery of the story. The movie would leave behind the murk of the swamp, the dampness and the dark shadows of the Fak and the Big Cypress. Instead the camera would pan across a classic Western vista, a bright sun washing across the rocky land, a big sky overhead, not a sign of a house or a car at this place hundreds of miles from civilization.

We zoom in on a solitary figure. A tall and lanky hunter rides through this vast and trackless desert, the rugged moun­tains forming a picturesque backdrop. His battered Stetson is angled to keep the morning sun out of his eyes. There’s a grim set to his jaw.

But wait, there’s something wrong here. Our cowboy hero isn’t riding a noble steed, a Thoroughbred that comes when he whistles, a twin to the Lone Ranger’s Silver. No, he’s astride something smaller, less dignified.

It’s a mule. McBride picked that as his mount because of the need for a sure-footed ride in this rough terrain.

Our rider has no backup. There’s no capture team to trail along behind him now. No burly guys in uniform ready to climb a tree. No veterinarian toting a big pack full of medical equipment. He didn’t even bring his sons along this time. It’s just McBride and his dogs, searching for signs and scents amid the mesquite brush and prickly pear cactus. He likes it this way—just him against nature.

Unlike in Florida, where the panther hunters weren’t allowed onto private lands, here McBride is welcomed by every rancher he meets. They know him and his reputation. They are delighted to see him. They don’t like the cougars, which frequently prey on their sheep. They know he’s here to take some of them away.

“They were very eager!” McBride told me.

There were other differences from Florida too. When his dogs caught a scent and began to chase a cougar, the cat didn’t run up a tree. There weren’t enough trees for that. Instead it would scramble atop a boulder or slip inside a cave.

That meant that, unlike in Florida, McBride couldn’t just fire a tranquilizer dart at the cornered cat. Instead he would have to maneuver his mule around to flush it out—quite a trick, given how skittish the mule was about getting close to a cougar.

“The mules don’t like ’em,” he explained. “I blindfolded him so he couldn’t kick me.”

So there he was, all alone, riding a blindfolded mule, his quarry in a hiding place nearly inaccessible to a humans, the fate of the panthers back in Florida riding on his rare abilities. No pressure.

But McBride performed the usual McBride miracle. In just a matter of months, he caught between 15 and 20 cats, he told me.

Many of them were unsuitable for the job. They were male, for instance. Or they were too old. Or they didn’t seem healthy enough. Those he turned loose again.

Whenever he caught one that seemed like a keeper, he’d shoot it with the tranquilizer dart containing a drug called ketamine. Once it was asleep, he’d hoist the drugged cat onto the back of the still-blindfolded mule and lead it back to where he had left his truck. Then he’d hitch the mule to the truck and load the cat into the front seat, as if it were some drunk uncle he’d picked up passed out in a bar. McBride would then climb be­hind the wheel and start making the long drive home with the mule trotting along behind and the snoozing cougar slumped down next to him.

He kept the cougars in the front seat, he explained, so he could monitor how comatose the cat was. The ketamine that knocked them out didn’t always last for the whole trip. If he had put the cat in the back of the truck, it might have awakened and jumped out. Keeping the cougar in the truck cab, while risky, seemed preferable to losing one.

“If it began to recover, I’d give it a little more ketamine,” he said.

At home McBride had built a pen to keep the cougars quar­antined, both from other cougars in the wild and from each other. They had to be penned up for thirty days, as requested by Florida officials. A veterinarian stopped by to take blood samples and check for any obvious health problems.

“The hardest thing was feeding them,” McBride told me. “They ate a lot. I’d feed them javelinas and road-killed deer. Gosh, they ate those things real quick!”

Texas parks officials brought him dead animals, and gave their blessing to removing the cougars from the state. It’s not as if they were endangered in Texas.

Once he had eight female cougars that had passed all the health tests, it was time to haul them back to Florida. That turned out to be even trickier than catching them.

McBride looked up a number for an airline at the nearest air­port, which was two hundred miles away, and called to ask ad­vice on how to transport such a cargo. The man on the other end of the line spelled it out for him. He couldn’t just stuff them into regular pet carriers, as if they were somebody’s Pom­eranians. He’d have to buy or construct special cages for each cougar. The airline employee told him the dimensions would have to be this, the air holes would have to be that, the handles would need to look like so. There would have to be a way to water the cougars during the flight without opening the door. That’s the only way they would be allowed onto the plane. He even sent McBride the blueprints.

McBride took careful notes on everything, looked over the blueprints, then got some wood and started sawing and ham­mering. Before long he’d built all eight cages. He thought they were pretty luxurious compared to the standard pet carrier.

Being McBride, he of course figured out how to persuade the cougars to climb in with a minimum of fuss. Then he loaded each crate into a trailer and, two months after his initial phone call, hauled them to the airport.

That’s where things went sour.

The airline employees on duty took one look at McBride and his traveling cat troupe and said no way. No giant apex preda­tors with sharp teeth would be allowed on board.

“They had a fit,” McBride told me. “They said, ‘You are not going to put those animals on an airplane.’”

McBride was flabbergasted. He had followed the instructions to the letter. He was all set to fly these cats to Florida. Now it was looking like he’d have to figure out how to truck them across most of Texas, through the coastal part of Louisiana, Mis­sissippi and Alabama and then down the spine of Florida to the southern tip. Even the idea of hauling them two hundred miles back to his home was daunting.

Fortunately, just as he was about to turn around in defeat, the employee he had talked to on the phone showed up.

Just like that, everything changed. This guy gave McBride a big smile and a thumbs-up to load the cats. They were cleared to fly to Florida, making the trip in hours instead of days. It turned out that this particular airline employee had a vivid memory of his conversation with McBride about the cougars.

“He’d been waiting to see ’em!” McBride said, laughing.

*

In Florida, the biologists decided to release the female cou­gars in pairs. Two would be turned loose in the Fak, two in the Big Cypress and so on.

The first pair were taken to the Fak. There, near the end of an unpaved road ten miles from the nearest house, McBride put them into a chain-link enclosure. The release plan called for keeping them penned up there for two weeks. They’d be fed deer meat and allowed to acclimate to the sights and smells and sounds of the swamp that was to be their new home.

At the end of March 1995, state officials planned to turn them loose with the appropriate pomp and ceremony. They invited fifty dignitaries and reporters from around the state to serve as witnesses for this momentous event.

When everyone showed up, though, they discovered some­thing surprising: only one cat remained in the pen. It was an eighty-pounder that crouched beneath a tall oak, panting in the heat and snarling at anyone who dared to stare at it through the slits in the burlap screen.

Where was the second one? It had already escaped.

One of the reporters who covered the release party wrote that the seventy-pound female cougar had “initiated her own early-release program by repeatedly hurling her body at full speed into the chain-link fence until she loosened the metal clips holding it to a corner pole—and out she went.”

Fortunately the biologists had already attached radio collars to both cougars, so they knew precisely where the escapee had gone. Once they turned the remaining captive loose, they could track both of them from the air, following their progress as they accustomed themselves to their new home and—everyone hoped—mated with whatever remaining males could still pro­duce viable sperm.

The other releases proceeded with less drama. Every few days, someone from the capture team would take to the air and buzz around checking on the cougars’ locations, tracking where they ended up, marking how close they were to any males.

Seven months passed like that.

Then, in October 1995, game commission officials were ready to hand out cigars. A miracle had happened. Their Hail Mary pass had landed just right to become a touchdown.

One of the Texas females had given birth to two kittens, a male and a female. They appeared to be free of all genetic de­fects. No kinked tail. No cowlick. No heart murmur. No prob­lems with their reproductive system. The cougars McBride had selected had succeeded where nearly everyone expected yet an­other failure.

Three of the females didn’t get to play their part, McBride told me. One Texas cougar was run over on a highway. Another was shot dead, no one knows why or by whom. One more died under somewhat cloudy circumstances, he said. That one had been pregnant at the time.

But the other five performed like champions. They adapted well to their new surroundings and produced litter after litter of defect-free kittens sired by male panthers.

__________________________________

cat tale

From Cat Tale by Craig Pittman. Used with the permission of Hanover Square Press. Copyright © 2020 by Craig Pittman.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman is an award-winning journalist at the Tampa Bay Times and author of 4 books, including NYT bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country and his latest, Cat Tale. His journalism has won 4 Waldo Proffitt Awards for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida. Twice he won the Society of Environmental Journalists' top investigative reporting award. He was named a Florida Literary Legend by Florida Heritage Book Festival in 2020.





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