The Florida panther folded into the jungle. She planted her bullfrog-sized back paws into the spaces her front feet had marked. Lately, there’d been biologists, sometimes riding their mechanical beasts, sometimes afoot, tracking with guns, chasing her even when she lunged tree-to-tree. Her paws became like leaves overlapping on the forest floor.
Sometimes after they’d left, she’d sniff deer carcasses, tempting but reeking in an alarming way. She managed to take one doe and drag it through nightfall to her den and let her four cubs feed. All but one awoke from their groggy, near-lethal sleep the next morning.
The panther’s three younglings, one male, two female, were beginning to taste the burnt sweetness of adulthood. Their wrestling had taken on violence, usually sheathed claws drawn. Blood rain-dropping on skin. One more would die before adulthood, and if it wasn’t the male, he would need to travel out of state to find his own turf.
The children’s father was only six years old himself, in competitive prime, the killer of another panther who wandered up from the Everglades, young, lusting, unknowing. The mother had found the intruder male’s body, yellow eyes gazing at the dampness of the world, neck tendons exposed, haloed by flies.
The female panther was ravenous, but when wasn’t this true? Even engorged on adult boar, she still felt the pangs in her loins that whispered to her she’d need to be on the hunt tomorrow, for four times the feed that she needed herself, meat to supply her insatiable kin.
She angled in from the forest towards the well-used game trail. The cracks in the fallen bark, as well as the shape of the matted floor tunneling in the reeds, revealed it had recently been crossed. A signal crossed her brain like a bright light that animates a room.
There were strings, like charcoal pearls, of fresh scat leading to a water confluence. She leapt from the ground and hooked around a cedar trunk, squirreling her way up to a branch, aloft but to the side of the tracks. She’d hunted this trail unnumbered times, rotating between the fauna highway and a fresh, cool spring that broke through the Earth’s skin, where fawns drank.
She sniffed the air over the amphibious trail. Over a few hundred yards, a river otter urinated, and a python devoured alligator eggs. Only occasionally did she find anything besides deer and boar to eat. But the life waited there, and her nostrils printed the bulletin in her mind. There were new feces, up trail. Perhaps two hours old. Time as sparks attached to the calls of her stomach, the radar of her nostrils, the penetrating urge to drag kills for several hours over the wooded swamps to her home and dine after her children.
A smell penetrated the air: the alluring and milky scent of ripped deer buttocks. Another animal’s kill. There was a weaker female in an adjacent territory. The panther leapt off her perch and chased the odor.
Randall Cunningham was in the southern, syrupy agony where the brain processes nothing. He felt his neurons congeal, fashioned into an omelet frying on his skull. Randall would peel his clothes off if he could. But even if it were legal, he would only get so bare before the oven of Florida cooked him. July in North Florida could disappear and he would be ecstatic.
Randall was 24, black-haired, moody or so his graduate school advisors hinted. He accentuated the look, wearing a dark shirt with dark buttons and Buddy Holly glasses, highlighting his moon-pale skin. He wanted to be the kind of person who lived in boundaries. Ecotones, they called them.
Nobody in the Florida State journalism school suspected him of being an Earth Linker, the group that, before his time, had dynamited bridges and spiked sequoias, stripped naked and shimmied trunks, lain prostrate before dozers. A time he wished he’d been born into.
Randall sponged his brow with tissue. He’d gotten lost since stepping into the Tallahassee Wildlife Center, various sandy and wood-fenced pens bordering the bounds of black bear and alligator. But soon he saw Eldridge Jones stomping across a log bridge that spanned the otter pen.
Randall had never met Jones, but he would be hard to miss: Jones was refrigerator-shaped, bearded, and bit Randall’s palm with his crocodile handshake. The man appeared comfortable while pouring sweat. Jones’s denim pants were mud stained, and his shirt was faded from body fluids. When Jones brought Randall into his office, books were stacked on the one swivel chair, a 1970s psychedelic couch buried under boxes. There was a small fan by a tsunami of paperwork. A smell of mold hung in the room.
Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, were predators—posters of wolves, skulls of grizzlies, ancient carnivore renderings in charcoal, watercolor, and needle point. There were three wildlife calendars, all out of date, hanging on one wall. Randall saw that Jones had ensconced himself inside a fanged zoo.
It was pornographic, was how Randall saw it. Jones was idealizing beasts, even while he kept them contained. But didn't he know? You couldn’t just pin nature down, or up.
Randall had never worked with any animals. Certainly not the 19 years Eldridge Jones had, but he read the great thinkers, the bio-philosophers like Emerson, Muir, and Barry Lopez. He read science articles, had an undergraduate degree in ecology along with the one, almost, in journalism. Today he had put on his journalist’s hat for show—the reporter's notebook, digital recorder. Even his khaki pants (chafing his knees) were a profession signal.
“You say your story is for Texas Monthly?” Jones asked.
Randall nodded. “The cougar connection,” he said. “I’m interested in the eight females that were brought over to breed with the Florida panthers.”
Jones chuckled. “Yeah, that was an interesting piece of business. Imported those Texas cats, bred them with panther boys to keep them from going extinct, and returned them to sender.”
“Has it been successful?” Randall asked.
Cheshire Cat smile. Jones said, “Let me show you.”
Outside, they crossed a sandy, dried creek bed bordered with palm and kudzu. Jones said while walking, “Now's a busy time of year. But when isn’t? We got food shipments, cages to clean, otters that are fighting, school kids to lecture. But it’s nice. I still get to play with the big cats.”
Jones possessed the only two Florida panthers in captivity, of about 120 still alive in the world. A fact that pretty much accounted for each visitor that crossed the Tallahassee Wildlife Center’s threshold.
Jones unfastened a door in a bamboo fence that was marked “restricted.” Beyond it a chain-like cage, in the center of which stood a guillotine pen door. Jones lurched up and raised and closed the entrance, the squeal of metal on metal sickening and violent, Randall wincing.
“Here Buddha, Buddha, Buddha,” Jones called. From beyond a tower of steel barrels, a panther came running across the grass with its mouth hanging open. He bee-lined for Randall.
Randall wheeled from the chain link. He’d never seen a big cat up close, charging. He expected something ferocious: a leap of claws at the fence, hissing and a tornado of fur. But the panther slowed at the pen door and molded his face into the dejected, puppy-dog look of pitifulness. His mouth widened and he yowled—a high-pitched, rusty door-hinge squeak.
“There's Booty-boo, Booty-boo.” Jones said. “Good Boo Boo.”
The cat was mountain lion-colored, tan-over-white, not dark and purple as Randall had assumed the panther would be. At the end of the cat’s fat, ropey boa tail was a kink like the bend in a periscope. And the cat’s eyes were a penetrating steel blue.
The gigantic paws could span across Randall’s face. As each one landed on his side of the cage, it stirred a wave of dust. Buddha looked up at Randall and yowled.
The female was distracted by the musty bovine scent from hogs who had rooted in her territory. They were probably driven out of the neighbor glade by a male who also sometimes patrolled here, a foe to the father of her pups.
The rival male had been rough on her, had stalked her children on a misty morning last winter when a mountain ice storm descended on the Panhandle. The male hadn’t merely been chasing them, he was bent on annihilation, slaughtering rival young. One pup was lost as the family fled through the cooling jungle; she had watched the frozen tips of his paws, his slowing chilled breath.
The hogs wouldn’t find safe passage on the mossy creeks and locust-covered trees that she patrolled. She became a streak as the water guarded her paws’ sound, and she swam through the grass. A leap onto a log that had been decomposing for two years, already morphed into a clay bank of earth, hiding the wallop of her impact.
But, again, the smell vise-gripped her. Something sweet and dead, a mist waffling across the plain that buffeted the glade. Her investigation: a freshly dead dear, hanging from a longleaf pine. She was skeptical, but the fist of hunger pounded and waiting didn’t seem possible. Hunger was leveling her, calling her beyond caution.
When she stealthed over to the clearing where the body hung, she stilled at the hum of cicadas and the wisp of tupelo trees that disgorged their scent. The deer was too easy, suspicious, but large and savory; it would provide her family a meal for days.
“He's a rotten animal,” Jones said and ran a finger across the chain kinks just out of reach of Buddha’s thick toes that secreted claws.
Randall couldn’t help himself. “Do you think there’s still any panther left in him?”
Jones sighed. “He’s one-half Texas cat, but still one-half Florida panther. We needed the Texas cats, ‘cuz without them, there would be nothing left. Just near-extinct, inbred shit.”
“But he seems tame.”
Jones sighed again. “He’s our cat now.”
Randall was writing perfunctorily in his notebook. He scanned the fences, noticing the lack of locks on the gates that led to the panther pen. Anyone disobeying the “Restricted” sign could find themselves nose-to-nose with a panther.
Randall was recalling the way to get to the panther pen from the Wildlife Center entrance when he sensed something on the back of his neck and turned to examine the undergrowth of the pen adjacent to Buddha’s.
Hovering just above the shaded dirt, not five feet away, were two yellow egg yokes. A mixture of hazel in the pupils and glitter like sharp steel.
The panther did not twitch as the pale human jumped back, and Randall released the smallest dabble of urine into his boxer-briefs.
She woke up after clutching the strung-up carcass in her mouth. She was in the dark, a cold metal box, jostling violently. She retched. Then slammed her head into the ceiling above.
There was no flash about her cubs. Not yet. They could survive on their own. Her calculations were made in synapses that jittered like palm trees fanning in a breeze. Later she would panic, attempt to scale the walls of her enclosure, sniff the salty air, taking in the oily musk of the primates who carried food and called down from the walkways that bordered her pen.
In the confines of the dark, rumbling cage, she sensed movement, her inner ear twitching violently as space whipped past. She scented aromas from several territories, but also the oil and grease of a large machine behind her, growling and hissing. She heard a primate body function and smelled something on fire. She tried backing up, but the cage was encompassing, a tiny universe. She retched again.
When they let her out at the pen, she charged, ignoring the noon sun that knifed her corneas. She recovered from the blow of light and scooted under brush, assaulted by the smell of hundreds of troubling creatures: red wolves, bears, alligators, serpents, a panther male. The canines that hunted the jungle. The humans that called out and left their matches burning in the grass.
The lightning bolt that was her mind’s preoccupation with her cubs struck and did not let go.
The female watched Jones and Randall from the vines and grass and kept her head down. Randall thought she must be studying their fleshy calves as they raised the pen's door, and rubbed their loose clothing against the fence.
“Does she always watch you like you're an injured gazelle?” Randall asked.
Jones bent over to look into her pen, then stood up and laughed. “That still sends shivers up and down my spine,” he said. “But yeah, that's how she is. She was wild since day one when the scientists caught her. Not mean, just aggressive and really, more panther.”
He directed a thumb towards Buddha. “He's a good cat,” Jones said, “You can tell he’s more personable. She, on the other hand, has been here six months. We've fed her every day, tranquilized her for shots, doctored her, but when you look into her eyes, you just have to know that there's nothing more she'd like to do than get away or make a meal out of you.”
Jones said that it was getting stifling and invited Randall back into his office. He lifted a paper-stuffed box off his couch with one arm and made a motion for Randall to sit. Jones plopped into his swivel chair, reached across his desk, and switched on the ancient, steel fan.
They spoke in the den of predators and armloads of paperwork. Randall still taking notes.
“So, the panthers ranged from North Carolina to Texas?”
“Yes, before we got here.”
“Is Fish and Wildlife still breeding Texas cougars and Florida panthers?”
“Not anymore. Mission’s accomplished, sort of. Though the cats keep threatening extinction. There’s only, like, 150 of them.”
“And they would have bred with Texas cougars were we not stopping them?”
Jones stopped spinning, stopped smiling. “That’s most likely right. But they’re Florida cats. We want to keep them Floridian as much as we can.”
“But they’d be mating with cougars if it wasn’t for us?”
Jones rubs his beard. “I see what you mean.”
Jones’s fingers caught in the thick rivulets of his beard. Randall thought about asking another question when Jones responded further.
“But the truth is they are here now. They’re Floridian whether they want to be or not because of what’s happened. Because of us. Whether I want them to be or not. And there are new dangers that they didn’t evolve to survive, like cars. Most panthers are actually killed by cars. You know?”
Jones was nodding along as if he were listening to himself. “I work off the assumption it’s best to stop tampering whenever you can,” he said.
The answer shot a burning spark of dissatisfaction through Randall. He clicked his pen and concluded the interview.
That night, Randall parked his car where hikers set off into the forest and wore zip-off pants, bug-spray, and a backpack to match the story. It was easy for Randall to retrace his steps, after he’d left and drawn a map in his notebook. It was simple really, now that he had been inside. The main entrance didn’t have a gate. And all he had to do was lift up the latch on the flimsy bamboo (bamboo!) fence and then raise the latch on the inner pen door and swing it open, releasing the near-extinct, wild Florida panther.
The panther didn’t belong in a zoo, Randall knew. The Tallahassee Wildlife Center, and places like it, were jail cells. This is what he repeated to himself as he inched along the walkway. She wanted to be out, to be breathing the wind of the gulf as it washed in on shore, to be hunting, not snacking on carcasses.
Strolling through the jungle of the park, Randall sensed tiny clicks that he realized were bats preying in the dark. His boot steps on the walkways were ear-splitting. Every animal in the park would wake to his presence, their senses more honed than his, than any human’s. If not the creaking of the walkway, they would sense his body, the whiffs of toothpaste and deodorant.
He didn’t know what kind of sounds the animals would emit, nor if a random security guard bunkered somewhere would hear and wander over. Randall crouched to the sides of the gangplank, ready to hang off the side, body dangling into the labyrinthine pens. Creak, creak! went the walkway, the park’s alarm.
At one moment, an animal rustled on his left. Something large, exhaling as loud as diesel exhaust. Randall grew half-mad with fear, and clomped forward, stopping every dozen seconds. Once he detected a squawk of a walkie-talkie, but the sound was distant, carried by the wind. After half an hour, he came to the panther pen.
The female’s mind was clay. She hadn’t been able to focus her senses since she holed up in the dense foliage adjacent the young adult male who was larger than she was, but close to half her maturity. He reeked of adolescence and compliance, and she sensed she could dominate him.
Every day she sharpened her claws on the walkway posts or the cypress trees that, thankfully, kept her shaded and concealed from the perpetually snacking primates who peered from above. Every day, she ate the leftover cattle parts that were dumped into her pen. Every day, she urinated by the male’s territory. He’d once had the self-possession to spray his musk across to her side, and she’d charged him then, slamming against the fence, a wrinkle of pleasure slashing through her body as he fled to the opposite side. Since then, he’d been supplicant, deferring.
Her guard went down. The male even started to dig a canal into her pen, and she assented. But twice she’d been pierced by something, and twice she’d awoken groggy with a sharpness spreading through her loins. And though it should be time for her shrieking lust, the time for sex with a male, all day with his barbed cock, that wasn’t happening yet.
Now a human was walking above her and creaking across the pen-way in the dark. He’d released scent as a black bear awoke, frightened by the man’s out-of-daylight presence. He was slithering along, creating suspicion.
The human crossed through the bamboo fence. She heard the squeak of the guillotine pen where the big primate sometimes entered. She rose to flee, but this man didn’t smell of smoke nor determination. He smelled of fear.
Randall shuffled inside the enclosure and saw the animal, who had risen out of the night. She seemed large. Terrifyingly so. Randall felt as if he'd forgotten to wear underwear. Somehow that's where his first thoughts went, to his crotch, those vulnerable parts.
He took in her body size. The five feet of muscle and intent. He realized what the tightened cord of muscle and knife claws could do to the desk-bound flesh he had become with his life choices.
He realized he didn't know what he was expecting. For the animal to charge him now would, in some way, be gratifying. To feel the razor claws on his cheek, a scar he could show. His initiation. He had fantasized about it. Males in his society didn’t have a proper adult initiation. Maybe she could be his. He stepped forward.
The cat stared, unblinking. She opened her mouth and let the air run off the man and circulate in her second pair of nostrils, the cresses in front of her teeth used to gauge emotional temperatures.
The man didn't smell like a trap. He was standing near the gate and could swing it shut, but the whiff of aggression wasn't on his sweat. So, she was patient, her instincts firing now, unclouded by the six months of laziness.
She waited and smelled. Coming through the gate, the plum-sweet scent of tupelo forests, the stickiness and raw ginger of mesquite trees in bloom. She could almost feel the soft wet mud cover her up to her calves, which had been dry and pasty for so long.
Randall leaned with his arm on the gate, poised. He stared forward, meeting eyes, which he knew signed a challenge, but he couldn't help it. He fantasized about leaving the pen and slamming the gate, so strong was the current of terror. She hissed once, and it thrilled him, his arm hairs rising at attention. What was it that the creature wanted? What could make her move?
He realized he was standing too near to the entryway. He shuffled off into the pen. He lost her eyes as he crept through the brush and around the cypress. He kept a hand on the fence. He had no backup plan if she should charge, if she should hunt him through the makeshift jungle. No weapon other than primate instinct.
He tiptoed and caught sight of her: she was crouched, tail in the dirt, oval eyes overcast in the moonlight. They both stalled, and Randal’s shoulders sank. His attention waned; should he pull out his phone and take a photo? He wanted that, the evidence, the mark of success, as much as he wanted this to be a good thing done.
He felt for the phone, zipping it out of his pocket. Retrieved, the screen kindled, blue light haloing his face, blinding him.
The man was distracted. She rose, took an experimental step forward. No pop, no smoke. She quickened.
Randall thought later it had looked like a gallop, the hind legs grabbing at the air and dirt where the front paws had landed. Less graceful than what he had been hoping, and it revealed her dung-smeared rump and the hay trickling down her flanks.
But still, the animal charged at an angle perpendicular to his body. Head forward, ears aloft taking in the night like twin satellite dishes. The sounds of padding, less than a chicken wing flapping, two pillows landing on each other, with a thump, thump, bass reverberation in his soles, which squeezed up his calves, and, for some reason, wrapped around his testicles.
He forgot about the phone; he only watched, arms prickling in the wet air.
The panther burst through the pen and ran through the wildlife center. She followed gangplanks, sniffing entrances, avoiding the other frightened and angry creatures. She heard an electric gnarl and swerved up another path. She ducked beneath an enormous wooden structure. She saw the open forest beyond the front gate and crept out to the road.
She looked both ways, sniffed back at the human jungle she had just escaped that still harbored another panther, a bear, and more—then she crept out onto the pavement. She stopped and sniffed the tar, and slinked to the edge of the trees with one more, now less careful, look back.
Tiny moons flashed over the asphalt. A shriek hit the jungle wall. Her ears folded back, and she leapt for the road ditch as the machine hammered by. The car exhaust filled her throat. Her inner ears ached while the sounds dimmed.
She rose again and shook herself. She edged her paw gingerly through the leaves and vines and entered the forest.
To keep up appearances, Randall returned the next morning as he’d said he would. His glasses fogged with humidity as he walked towards the Center. Perched on a hovel of road bank, a police cruiser. His heart chirruped, and despite himself, he grinned.
He wasn't expecting this serenity in conscience. He'd duped Jones, a man who, on the surface of things, cared about the panthers, about their imminent extinction. He quieted his breath on the way to the panther pen, passing the creatures who last night had been aliens: red wolves, coyotes.
Oh, if only more of you were around, he thought, in large numbers, to put us in our places. To remind us of a world still wild. Well, the apex predator was back. It was just one, Randall knew, but a start.
Randall brushed mosquitoes off his chest and floated over the beaver pond. The bamboo fence that he'd passed through with Jones was chained, so he walked into the staging area. He saw a young woman in khaki, skin whiter than his, hauling a bucket of potato skins into the shed.
“Morning,” he said. “I’m a reporter here to see Mr. Jones?”
She set the bucket down. “Can't talk to you. Too much's happened today.” She reached for a tool, then stopped, lowered her arm and came back from around the door to look at him fully.
“Do you know what’s happened?” She bit her lip. Before Randall could answer, she said, “They're out front,” she said, and jerked a thumb in the direction of the park entrance. “With the cops,” she added. She stalked off, mop in hand.
Panic seized Randall, but he angled across the road. Turning left he peered above the police cruiser, its lights no longer flashing. A ream of crime scene tape strewn down the road. He heard Eldridge Jones bawling.
Randal’s better judgement pulled him to the yellow tape. If he wasn’t a criminal, he shouldn't act it. He hid his hands in his pockets and strolled, he thought too fast, to the cop car to see if he could speak to Jones.
The police, Jones, and two other men in polo shirts with notebooks and camera were packed together like a football huddle. Jones was directly in front, blocking the horizon from the street.
“Excuse me, Mr. Jones?” Randall said.
He swirled around, his face a mixture of bewilderment and alarm, smudged with salt. “Oh,” Jones said and shrank into himself. He marched forward. Instinctively, Randall stepped back, but Jones had his arms raised, the globe of a man pulling Randall into his orbit. Jones wrapped both paws around Randal and squeezed. “Randall, they took our babies.” Jones said.
“I got to the cage this morning and it was open. Somebody let her loose; she's long gone. Prolly end up on the side of a highway just like this one.”
Jones's hips swayed to the side, the moon rotating on its axis, and Randall could see. He saw. Blinked.
A limp panther. Eyes blue. Tail kinked. A tear of blood clefted its chin.
“How—?” he stammered.
Jones sniffed again. “They prolly — thieves, activists, who knows? — they let her go, but this one, he was just a baby of an animal. He’d done dug a hole a few weeks ago into her pen. He got out too. Maybe followed her. We let it go on because the two weren't harming each other. Thought maybe they were in love, would have kids, help the species.”
Randall felt a sheet of paper crumple in his chest.
“Instead,” Jones’s face contorted, “they killed this one. And that's all of them. That's all of the Florida panthers in the Florida Wildlife Center. That's one of the last in the world.”
Jones cleared aside so Randall could have a look: the six feet of cat that lay before him, all four paws and legs splayed out, intact, as if it were running on its side.
She slipped over the folds of vines that had ensnared a fence curling around and between the barbs of a cattle pen. One ecotone then another, the blurring, screeching noise of vehicles on roads that murdered up and down the forest. She lacerated her right paw on a shingle barb that jutted out from a bear-torn fence. She took an hour to lick it with her medicine-rich tongue, passing the wet sandpaper over the wound, cleaning off the muck, pausing to listen to the screech of bats, the rootings of boars.
The thrill to stand over prey jolted her, and she was already recalibrating the techniques she had used to grow her young, the cubs she felt no desire to rejoin. They were either dead or surviving, though she felt nothing like this kind of calculation—only the cold darkness where she’d once held a space for them. A bright chandelier switched off.
The scent of boar was intoxicating. And the deer urine. No rival panther odors. She was taking a step into the Florida panhandle, that handshake of land that connects the tropics to the dark Southern backwaters, closer to Texas.
She felt a lust for flesh. She hadn’t made a kill in months, and while that urge had dampened with the regular supply of cattle meat, it had not died. She felt the strength in her, which had grown soft, starting to awaken.