Author Interviews: Journalist talks Florida panther at Midtown Reader

Craig Pittman has what he calls the greatest job in American journalism: writing about the environment for The Tampa Bay Times.

“I get paid to go out on a boat,” he enthused. “And Florida has no end to the wacky, weird environmental stuff…”

Known for his “Oh, Florida!” column and a book by the same name, Pittman is a collector of strange stories — the stranger the better.

And typical of his truths-wilder-than-fiction storytelling is the narrative captured in his latest book, “Cat Tale,” about how the Florida panther was brought back from the very brink of extinction.

Pittman will talk and sign his new book at 6 p.m. Friday at Midtown Reader.

“I’ve been writing this book since 1998, but it needed a good ending,” Pittman told me. “That didn’t happen until 2017.”

For the uninitiated, the panther is the official state animal of Florida. Also known as a mountain lion, cougar and puma, the animal has been on the endangered species list since the late 1960s, and for decades scientists (and concerned citizens) watched the population dwindle to about 20 in 1995.

Their return, said Pittman, is probably the greatest endangered species success story, thanks to a Hail Mary attempt by an extraordinarily determined group of people.

“This isn’t just a nature book about big cats,” he explained to me. “This is also about the people — the grizzled old Texas tracker, the veterinarian from the Northwest, the school children who voted to make the panther the state animal.”

In a story that celebrates the twists and turns of the panther’s remarkable recovery and the people who made it possible, Pittman’s love for his state and its wonderful weirdness rings clear. “Cat Tale” is worth the read for the nature, for the history, for the people.

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.