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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Florida author speaks on state panther revival

<p><span>An endangered Florida panther.</span></p>

An endangered Florida panther.

Craig Pittman is full of stories.

They vary in both length and gravity. In one, he tells a story about a woman who was chased by a panther. She stripped off her clothing to distract it until she finally made it inside her house naked. The panther was scratching at her door.

“At least, this is the story she told her husband when he got home and said, ‘Why are you naked?” Pittman said. 

The audience responded in laughter.

In another, he tells a story about a biologist who revived public interest in the Florida panther and equipped several with tracking collars. After one collar’s batteries began to die, his team tracked the panther down and shot a tranquilizer dart into it.

The dart hit the panther’s femoral artery, killing it. The biologist walked away with the corpse on his shoulders.

This time, there’s no punchline.

It’s this combination of hopelessness and eccentricity that brought Pittman to write his fifth book, titled “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther,” which he spoke about Saturday afternoon at the Matheson History Museum.

Pittman is an award-winning environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. 

Pittman’s home state is central to his identity, he said. His previous book, “Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” was both an embrace and a dissection of Florida’s confounding nature, according to his website. He sends out a weekly newsletter of the five most “Florida” stories of the week, which he said is often difficult to narrow down.

And Pittman even gave his expertise on Florida men on an episode for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

He gave an abridged retelling of the panther’s history and answered questions from the roughly 25-person audience, staying afterward to sign copies of the book. 

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The event was part of the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere’s Local Author Series, which highlights talented authors in Florida.

On Saturday, he spoke on Florida’s environmental outlook and the importance the panther played as a symbol for the future.

Pittman’s book details the story of how the Florida panther was saved from extinction, going all the way back to the Native Americans’ worship of the panther where they called them “The Cat of God.” 

"The Florida panther is the last cougar east of the Mississippi, and if we lose it, we've lost our state animal,” Pittman said. 

Pittman has written several articles about the panther and said he always thought it would make a good book.

“It just needed an ending,” he said. 

About three years ago, that ending finally presented itself. While Pittman was deliberately vague on what it was, he said it promised hope, which was a necessity for him to tell the story.

“So much of the environmental news we see these days is really, really grim,” Pittman said. “Especially regarding climate change.”

Audience member Dorothy Smiljanich came out to see Pittman Saturday because of her interest in Florida’s environmental issues, she said. She’s a former film critic and a travel editor for the then-St. Petersburg Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times.

Smiljanich praised Pittman for being both witty and informative in his talk. She picked up a copy of his book after he mentioned Florida Gulf Coast University played a part in the panther’s story, as she said her nephew attends the university. 

“I thought it was terrific,” Smiljanich said. “And it sounds like a really exciting and important book for Florida.

An endangered Florida panther.

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