BookShelf: “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle To Save the Florida Panther”
By Craig Pittman
Hanover Square Press, $27.99
Reviewed by JoAnn M. Valenti
As a fellow Florida native, I can’t imagine being on our sinking ship of a planet without longtime Society of Environmental Journalists member and award-winning environmental journalist-author Craig Pittman.
With his reporting for The Tampa Bay Times and his output of truth-telling books, Pittman names names, lays out the science, talks to everyone involved from federal employees to ranchers and tourists, and works hard to find a speck of hope. He’ll also make you laugh — his puns and always-present sense of humor can make the bad news a tad easier to swallow.
Pittman’s latest volume, “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle To Save the Florida Panther,” scheduled for release Jan. 21, is his fifth book, each featuring his native home state of Florida (his New York Times bestseller, “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” won a 2016 gold medal for Florida nonfiction).
In fact, his new book hadn’t even been released last October when he was named the 2020 Florida Literary Legend, an honor that puts him alongside Sunshine State luminaries like Carl Hiaasen, Peter Matthiessen, Michael Connelly, Harry Crews, Edna Buchanan, Tim Dorsey and others.
“Cat Tale” lays out an engrossing animal history,
the science behind the facts and a determined
reporter’s 20-year effort to find a way
to share a disturbing story of near extinction.
Now, in some 300 pages and 21 chapters, “Cat Tale” lays out an engrossing animal history, the science behind the facts and a determined reporter’s 20-year effort to find a way to share a disturbing story of near extinction. Pittman interviews all involved, even if he has to follow his subjects into the men’s room.
Pittman says he waited to tell the Florida panther’s story until he could find a hopeful ending. With the state’s population of 21 million people growing daily and habitat for animals, plants and humans vanishing quickly, locating it must have been a challenge (although he says he did with a Cat Cam photo of kittens that are part Texas cougar).
And he uses some tongue-in-cheek observations to drive home points. A sample of Pittman wit: “This [one of the originally tagged panthers by researchers] was killed by science. You could even say it was the one cat killed by someone’s curiosity.”
The reader can savor more of his personality in the prologue where he writes that as a young boy he wanted to be “a scientist-playboy-writer-naturalist-carouser,” emulating a late-1800s hero. I think he has achieved most of his goal, but am so glad he focused on journalism.
Here’s more of what you’ll learn from this sleep-depriving book: The history not just of the Everglades, but of Big Cypress and the Fakahatchee; the status of Florida crocodiles, gators, bears, deer, monkeys and more (including the now-extinct dusky seaside sparrow); that the worst predators are cars, trucks, corrupt politicians (big surprise there) and developers; the flaws in science, especially peer-reviewed; the importance of sperm quality and descending testicles; hunters, “humans who like to kill,” including their accents; and the role of women in Florida’s environmental movement and science, in spite of the extinction vortex at hand.
Also be prepared for solid evidence as to why Pittman considers the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service legendary enemies of the environment. Don’t be surprised if a few legacies bite the dirt once this book hits the shelves.
As I read, I was seething with rage. Only Pittman’s final tales, including on the role nature photographers are now playing, restored my ability to sleep somewhat peacefully.
In the end, “Cat Tale” is a prime study of excellence in environmental reporting and the ability to tell a compelling story to a wide audience.
JoAnn Valenti is a founding SEJ academic member and emerita professor who lives in Tampa, Fla.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.