The tracker pauses and walks to a jut of high ground, where he picks up what looks like a hank of steel wool dipped in flour. Scat. He sorts through it with his fingers. "Let's see what this guy's been eating. Nope, no deer, no raccoon. Mice. Not that a panther wouldn't eat mice, but bobcat's more likely." He brings the week-old stool up to his nose and inhales deeply. "Now you see," he tells his companion, "how I got this reputation for knowing my shit."
James P. McMullen—or Scatman Jim as he is known, to his amusement, in parts of the Everglades—carries his obsession lightly. Sure, on this day in the Big Cypress Swamp he is outfitted somewhere between Rambo and Bronco Billy, what with his camouflage shirt, his black K mart stetson, his holster loaded with No-Scent and Doe-in-Heat, and his hollow-handled survival knife containing hooks and fishing line, a saw and waterproof matches. Still, there's nothing in the Scatman's easy manner that betrays the actual size and heat of his mania. For that you'd probably have to talk to his wife, Janie, a virtual swamp widow. Or better, go to his book, Cry of the Panther (Pineapple Press, $15.95, or McGraw-Hill paperback, $4.95), which was written almost entirely in the glades and has been praised by no less a wilderness man than James Dickey.
For nine years now, Jim McMullen, 42, has been in thrall to the Florida panther, an animal not to be confused with the black leopard that lurks in the recesses of Kipling and in the popular image of what a panther should look like. The Florida panther is actually a cougar that has adapted to the Everglades. To hear the swampies tell it, he is a quasimythical beast, as seldom seen and nearly as improbable as a griffin or a unicorn. McMullen didn't mean to fall for the cat. It kind of crept up on him. Vietnam prepped the tracker for capture, although he didn't realize it until years later when he started reading about post-traumatic stress syndrome. After 13 months overseas, Marine Cpl. McMullen had come back to "the world" in 1967—back to Streator, Ill. (pop. 16,000), the cornbelt town where he'd grown up. Like many of his buddies, he brought the war back with him. He ducked for cover if someone started a jackhammer. He jerked out of his sleep in the middle of the night, dreaming of that day south of Chu Lai base camp when a mine exploded beneath his truck, VC fire whacked him in the back and he was sure he was paralyzed, maybe a goner.
Booze was the answer, he thought for a time. And if it wasn't, well, at least it let him forget the question. He would get with other vets in hole-in-the-wall bars and riddle his innards with shots of tequila. "I felt as long as I could hold onto the floor I was okay," he says. One rainy night he couldn't. He swerved off the road and leveled a telephone pole, planting himself in a cornfield.
Then he met Janie Hardy—re-met her, really. She'd been just a girl when he had left for Vietnam. Now she gave him purchase and a motive, in 1972, to enroll at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb. But he was still drinking. "You know why I went to college?" he asks. "To hide. The GI Bill paid my way. I took a night-shift job, only man at a warehouse. I hid there. I was real disappointed when the GI Bill dried up and I had to come out of hiding."
And so the ambush was laid. It was sprung one winter day in 1975, when McMullen chanced to read a three-inch item in one of the Chicago papers. It said the Florida panther was extinct, end of story. McMullen remembers his reaction. "I said, 'No, he's not. He can't be.' I didn't believe it. I knew nothing about the Everglades, but I always had a feeling for the underdog, the little guy who wasn't cuttin' the mustard. Hell, that's why I went to Vietnam."
Five months later McMullen was in the swamp outside Everglades City, using tracking skills he'd learned as a kid from his grandfather and sharpened on patrol in Vietnam. Only this time he was not hunting man, but panther, and he was hunting not to kill it, but to prove it was alive—in a sense to save it, the way he'd meant to save that little country over there. Eight months straggled by before he so much as saw one. It was just after dawn and he was moving through the swamp, his eye on a flock of white ibis, when suddenly—but let him tell it.
...A patch of gray-brown fur appeared in shadows between cypress trees. It might easily have been a white-tailed deer. Except the body seemed closer to the ground in a horizontal position, and it appeared to float a foot above the swamp as it moved, as stealthy as a—cat.... Then, as abruptly as it had appeared, the fur was gone. My heart stopped. No, I cried inside. No, not now, not after so long. As the last words rolled across my mind, the fur was there once again. Then it melted into the shadows, reappeared, only to disappear once again.
Finally the unearthly creature spotted him, dug its paws into the ground and sprang off into the trees. The tracker followed in fevered, comic pursuit, crashing in and out of the swamp water, snaring himself in the vines and tripping over cypress knees, while trying both to catch the animal and get a shot of it with his camera. Naturally he couldn't do either. But he did manage to see the cat whole.
It was furred power, gray-brown on top, creamy white underneath, and at the end of it, a magnificent, long J-shaped tail streaked in dawn light and swamp darkness like a retreating demon....
It was only a glimpse, but it was enough. Enough to put McMullen over the hump and into the strange country of obsession. McMullen knew that he had to see the cat again, he had to lock eyes with it across the Mammalian Divide and achieve that state of exultation he called "affinity." For the next seven years McMullen tracked the panther he named "Shakespeare," pursuing him through swamps thick with cypress, red maple, oak, gumbo-limbo and poisonwood, following him along trails cut by the Seminoles and deepened by turn-of-the-century lumber companies. To catch the cat he decided to be the cat. Which is to say he went into training, conducted his own boot camp, sought bit by bit to implement the Lord Greystoke myth in reverse. He jogged barefoot in slash pine woods and duck-waddled up the trails with his Marine backpack filled with rocks. He learned to live off the land, fishing for bream and bass and catfish with grubworms and dragon-flies, mixing the nuts and honey he carried on his belt with pennywort to make a swamp salad.
As his competence bloomed, so did his mania. He found the bloated remains of a deer Shakespeare had killed a week before and, ignoring the stink and the maggots, immersed himself in the carcass, absorbing the musk. Then he cut out a section of its chest and ate it—"a communion of man, deer and cat." He spent days hiding in the crotches of trees waiting for Shakespeare to pass by. To keep himself vigilant he adorned his neck with a ring of thorns that pricked him when he nodded off. Once he spent hours neck-deep in swamp water evading the attention of a 300-pound bear, making like a mud turtle and going under each time the beast glanced in his direction.
The Scatman's obsession reached full flower with his adoption of a baby panther he named Tracker. He got the cub from Frank and Ellen Weed, who ran an exotic wild-animal ranch near Immokalee, Fla. Tracker helped McMullen complete the metamorphosis from man to panther. It was she who taught him to get down on all fours, to put his nose to Shakespeare's scat and implant the scent in olfactory memory. It was she who taught him to make the cry of the panther—"This sorrowful scream," he would write, "floating across the swamp water in the glades, an unearthly wailing that pierces to the bone." In the end, after four long years of apprenticeship, it was Tracker who enabled him to catch up with Shakespeare, to meet him one last time on his own savage ground.
It is nearing midday, and McMullen and his companion have traipsed almost eight miles through the swamp. The Scatman suggests they grab a piece of shade and dispose of the bologna sandwiches and coffee he is carrying in his backpack. It is a gesture of compassion to a tenderfoot, but the quality of his mercy is unstrained, as the Scatman's own feet are also on the tender side. A few weeks back Tracker turned on him. She took his heel in her mouth and tried to tear it off. McMullen had her outside her cage on a 30-foot lead when she suddenly bolted toward the tree line—in the direction, he imagines, of a would-be mate. "I dove and got hold of her tail about halfway up," he says. "That's about the last thing you want to do with a panther in heat. We break danced back and forth for a while. Then I opened my boot. Whoosh! The blood went all over the place."
By McMullen's lights, the little dance with Tracker was just part of the cost of his panther project. Over nine years of steady tracking McMullen has come face-to-muzzle with cats in the wild on 10 different occasions. He has located the spoor and charted the territory of 26 panthers in the Everglades, and he has found 61 more places in the state where they could survive. Largely as a result of his efforts, Gov. Bob Graham designated the Florida panther as the official state animal in 1982, and the well-laid plans of more than one land developer have come to an unexpected and unwanted end. Not long ago, for example, a group of speculators managed to buy up a chunk of the Everglades near the west coast city of Fort Myers. "They were literally going to build another Fort Myers," says McMullen. "The Sierra Club hired me to find a cat on the site. To make a long story short, I found one in three days." Using the Endangered Species Act as leverage, the club was able to scuttle the developers' scheme at the next meeting of the Fort Myers city council.
Such contributions, of course, do not pay the bills. Since 1980, the year he quit his job as an assistant naturalist at the Big Cypress Nature Center and took a second mortgage on his cinderblock house in Naples in order to give full rein to his obsession, McMullen has been officially unemployed and largely dependent on the money Janie makes as a grade-school teacher. Two summers ago he was forced to sell $1,250 worth of camera equipment for $800. "That paid the mortgage and bought us three weeks of chow," he says. But it hurt, because he had been financing his excursions into the swamp, and spreading the gospel of the panther, by giving his slide-and-lecture show in high schools all over the state. Sometimes he would do as many as 20 shows a month, with Tracker rampant on the stage or curled up next to him. "It's funny," he says. "I became completely at ease speaking in front of 500 people. But after my book came out with all the personal stuff, all the Vietnam flashbacks—things I'd never even told Janie—I'd stand up there and feel naked. Still, there it was, in print for everybody to read, so I just had to roll with it."
The Scatman tears off the aluminum foil and bites into a bologna sandwich. He is worked up now. He makes a gesture that takes in the Everglades in its entirety. "You know," he says, "at one point in history you could canoe from Naples all the way across to Miami. Now there are roads all over the swamp, and the canal system has drained off all the fresh water. Look at the cypress trees, how stunted they are for lack of water. There used to be herds of white-tailed deer running through here—just 30 years ago. Pelicans, gators, swallow-tailed kites, you name it, just about every animal in the glades is either on the endangered or threatened species list." McMullen pauses to survey the swamp. "I say in my book that the panther is a mysterious messenger. He's trying to tell us that if you destroy him, you destroy the Everglades, and if you destroy the Everglades, you break down the balance of the ecosystem and destroy all wildlife." The Scatman slows down and regroups. "I don't know," he says. "Sometimes it's like talking to a brick wall. All people see is that I'm trying to save the Florida panther because he's a neat animal, and they don't give a damn about the Florida panther."
McMullen laughs—he likes to keep his obsession light. But concern tugs at the corners of his smile. He tells his companion that they are in Shakespeare's territory. They've been in it all day with no sign of the cat at all, no toe prints in the mud, no claw-marked logs, no scat. This does not surprise him, not really. He's seen no physical sign of Shakespeare in the swamp for two years. He seemed to disappear into the mists for good not long after they shared their second moment of affinity, three years ago. McMullen has been fighting all this time, much like the families of MIA soldiers, to maintain his faith in Shakespeare's canniness and resilience. "I'd feel better," he says, "if I came across a different set of tracks and knew that another cat had moved in. But I could be entirely wrong. Maybe he's all right. Maybe he's just expanded his territory and is doing good somewhere else."
The day is made for tracking. The sky is gray and the 30-foot cypresses are creaking in the early-morning breeze as Jim McMullen enters the slough. The feeble light needles down through the cypress canopy, revealing a tangled carpet of fungi, moss, roots and duckweed. McMullen points at the air plants that seem suspended in the murk. The sharp red blossoms remind him of the painted Oriental fingernails he saw long ago, beckoning to lonely soldiers on the streets of Saigon and Da Nang. "And look, over here," he says. Moving to a pool of brilliant green water, he indicates a kind of trough carved into the black mud. "Gator. Wooo-ee! He's no cookie-pusher. Got to be eight, nine feet."