Craig Pittman made me cry.
Not in person; in person, he's a Southern gentleman who would never make a lady cry (unless it's from groaning at his bad jokes) but Cat Tale had me in tears by the second page.
It also had me in tears on the last page – but for a different reason (and one you'll have to buy the book to learn why, and yes, it will probably make you cry, too).
If humans seemed determined to destroy the planet – dynamiting mountaintops, bulldozing rainforests, and otherwise consuming ourselves and other carbon-based life forms out of existence, consider the plight of Puma concolor coryi, or the Florida panther. In 1982, younger-and-markedly-less-jaded me voted – along with other Florida public school kids – to make the panther our state animal, but there was a problem: There, uh, weren't many, if any, Florida panthers left.
Thus began the battle to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.
Cat Tale takes you to the front lines of this battle, and, although there isn't a whole lot of focus on the mountains of mistakes we've made with Florida since the first Europeans stuck their sea-weary boots on our palm-fringed soil, it's clear that we're capable of making mistakes while trying to fix those first mistakes, too.
Pittman, Florida's pre-eminent environmental journalist, throws the full weight of his investigative skills into this book, but he combines with it much of his own personality: Think of it as the environmental Bob Woodward meets a fan of dad jokes. The combination (Pittmanesque? Pittmanosity?) lends an unusual tenor to Cat Tale, but one that makes the work a standout in the field of environmental writing. A history of the fight to save an endangered species could easily succumb to a barrage of facts and citations, but an academician Pittman, thankfully, is not. Instead, Pittman puts forth a history washed in emotion, and he's not afraid to call out the bad guys – like the guy who published bad research and took money from developers to help them pave over critical panther habitat. Or the federal agency that wouldn't allow its biologists to say no to development. Or the legions of politicians – Democrat and Republican alike, from local guys to the office of the president – who failed these majestic cats.
But Pittman tells the story of the heroes, too, and helps us redeem ourselves.
Many of those heroes, though not all, are women in science. Want your little girl to think about a career in science? Get her this book, because Pittman shines a light on women biologists without whom the panther might well have been a memory.
Unlike his last book, Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which pointed out how Florida's peculiar brand of antics actually helps improve the rest of the country and the world, Pittman allows his unbridled love of the state's natural environment to take the helm at the typewriter. Cat Tale shows us Pittman at his best: passionate, earnest and sincere about our state, balancing his love for Florida with his need to tell us the truth about our failures.
Pittman starts the cat's tale with a single cat, then zooms out to tell the story from 20,000 feet. It's a sort of rocket ride between the two places, and it's emotionally exhausting. But that exhaustion feels good; by the end of the 300-plus pages, we've earned the ending. Pittman takes you through hope and hopelessness, anger and joy, failure and triumph. When you reach the last page, you feel like you've lived through every moment of the Florida panther's near-history. Its brushes with extinction are ours; its moments of survival, the same.
Cat Tale doesn't give away its ending, and I won't either. Unless you're super tuned in to what's happening in Florida wildlife news, you won't have a clue until the last few pages whether or not the species has a chance – a real chance – for escaping extinction. If you care – even a little bit – about the fate of this magnificent cat, I can't think of a better way to learn about what it's been through and what it will take to truly save the Florida panther. The writing is superb, the emotion is real and the story? No one could tell it better.
– This story appears in the Jan. 29, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.