Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Florida panther: One majestic leap short of a kingdom

April 17, 2007

As iconic to Florida as sabal palms or the sun, panther FP130 lay stiff and cold in a Fish & Wildlife truck, killed March 21 on Interstate 4.

In the news photo, I see close-up the white teeth, soft fur and enormous padded feet. The only thing wrong with this majestic beast is that he's dead. Otherwise he'd be the perfect artwork, roaming the Green Swamp after that siren song only he could hear.

They say there are no female panthers this far north, but he thought there were. He thought the swamp went on forever, no antidote to asphalt or big rigs in his instinct's bag of tricks. To him, the panther is king whom none can best. Surely humans and their engines are like aliens in flying saucers -- or worse. To him, young, virile, ready to rock the world, four lanes' width seems a mere rock slab he must cross to reach the cypress and swamp maple at the forest's edge.

After all, you're invincible when you're young, barely out of spots, no longer gamboling in silly games. You can see coons' eyes and fireflies in the labyrinth between ghostlike knees and bark: It can't be far. A panther at night needn't worry: He's king!

One more leap and impenetrable black will envelope me, under the new moon (like a thin fingernail) my blood racing like a flooded river -- almost there! -- I stretch my full length, powerful shoulders and legs, tail taut, gold irises eclipsed by pupils like black conduits to eternity, and I'm struck suddenly by something I could never have smacked down with my paw, a speeding monster; a death machine I couldn't know to elude, hunting me down, racing without thinking, at the nod of fate.

It seems embarrassing for a proud puma to die unnoticed at the side of a forest he almost reached. The deer will be glad; turkeys maybe. That coon may live to prowl another night. But not I. I was a song begun in the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest that came to an end. I'm still beautiful. Any female around knows I am. I can't begrudge what I never understood. I know now that death is the price of streaming fabulous life, and that it comes to all. But I remember that sliver moon, the Florida night, my sister, mother, where I go --

Scientists are careful not to anthropomorphize their subjects with names, but were FP130 called "Jack" or "Tawny," I couldn't mourn him more. With only 80 to 100 panthers left in the wild, surely a state whose wizards build roads and launch rockets can connect the dots between wildlife areas -- fences, culverts, greenways (absent SUVs).

Isn't Puma concolor coryii a state emergency?

Eagan, a pastel artist and environmental activist, lives in Winter Park. Opinion/Editorials/opnOPN31041707.htm

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