Craig Pittman! Transcript

Cat Tale Chat!

Tyler

On today’s episode we’re gonna be talking about Craig Pitman’s new book, cat tail, the wild, weird battle to save the Florida Panther, which

Gramel 

is all about one certain breed of cat and they’re vicious and ferocious, but at the end of the story, we’ll probably have a different opinion of them.

Tyler

Then in the second segment, we’re going to be playing a little bit of state animal trivia since the Florida panther is the state’s animal. And then in the third segment, we’re gonna be chatting with Craig about his book craft, Florida wisdom, interesting and unknown stories about our home state and what it looks like are reporters during COVID.

Gramel

I’m looking forward to it. I’m gonna dress up

Tyler

So why don’t you give us a quick synopsis about what the book is about?

Gramel

It’s about Florida panthers Their testicles didn’t descent.

Tyler

 That’s not a good thing for they’re

Gramel

That’s very, very important. It’s very important that our audience realizes that. That was really the reason for the book. And the interest Mr. Pittman had in Panther is because their numbers were quickly descending. And it just had been that way for quite a while. He got interested in it. And I guess after 20 years or so of being interested in it, he finally got to write this book. He put a lot of love in it. It’s a good thing there’s people like that care about because actually gotta read the book because I can’t give it away.

Tyler

Craig starts with the beginning of the Florida panther or the Panther in Florida. And then he kind of follows how they were hunted, and how those early folks were afraid of them and their roles I played, and then because of other hunting and other things, their numbers started to dwindle to almost extinction.

Gramel

I like the part that children, school children played in this about getting it to the front of the people Florida because I think that you know that it was an interest to the children.

Tyler

There was a moment where the state was trying to decide what the state animal would be. And so they gave it to the school children to vote, and it was between a manatee and alligator a Panther. Was it a deer To me it was something like there were like four times turkey or something. So, you have to read it to find out. This isn’t spoiling anything because the Panther is the state. I almost said state bird. The panther was chosen as the state animal. They wanted to then put a lot of research and conservation that it wouldn’t go extinct. Because a lot of people really, were using it as a mascot. They were really identifying with it, and if your state animal goes extinct, that’s not a great metaphor for your own state. They were really, really down to a handful of Panthers at one point. And so that really started their conservation efforts. It’s a very serious topic. It’s a very serious book. I mean, it goes through a lot of the reasons why things were becoming extinct.

Gramel

Guess why they were becoming extinct? Guess what the number one reason was.

Tyler

What?

Gramel

You’re a professor you should know.

Tyler

Well, I read the book. I thought you were trying to set up a joke.

Gramel

Four-wheel cars that were killing them. The people were intruding on their space, right.

Tyler

So, initially back in the day they were going extinct because people were hunting them. And then one of the main killers when we were trying to protect them with people hitting them with their cars, which I found very poignant to the rest of the story.

Tyler

This book is so full of characters. I don’t mean there’s so many characters you can’t figure out who’s who; the people are characters because they are so eccentric. A lot of the characters become obsessed with panthers, and they devote their whole life to them.

Gramel

And I thought so much of the employees that cared, and they would work tirelessly. And I don’t think they got paid for it because they worked quite best by the clock and they work weekends and they just were very, very dedicated and trying to save them. And that became very heartfelt.

Tyler

I think one of the most dedicated people was one of the trackers and his last name’s McBride.

Gramel

I could picture him. I’m a very Merry Widow that wants to remain a very Merry Widow. But he kind of made my toes curl.

Tyler

Oh, he did something for you. He’s a very like John Wayne kind of figure to me, who tracks down big cats. But at the same time, he’s has a master’s and I think biology or something like that. So he’s very well rounded. And he, you know, would just go after these cats in spent so much time tracking them that he became one of the best in the world for what he does. And then because very humble, and he cared a lot about the cats, and he was very into science and he would not put up with bs if some of these developers and other people had more nefarious interests.

Everyone would say he’s a man of very few words. So, people would just observe what he was doing.

Gramel

He was real good to his wife real devoted to his wife. Yeah. Which I think is very sexy. From what I can tell, he made me think more of that actor from Australia.

Tyler

Who? Chris Hemsworth?

Gramel

No, no, no, that, you know, Crocodile Dundee guy. Okay, because John Wayne was like me had meat on his body.

Tyler

All right. Well, that’s good to know.

Gramel

Yeah, I got him. His images is gonna stay there for a while. Let me tell you, I love hate politics. And there was a lot of politics in this. Good people, basically. And the good ones were not politicians. They say love makes the world go round, but I think it’s money.

Tyler

A lot of the reason was people want to develop land in Florida, and other folks are trying to protect the land for the Panthers and the other animals kind of depend on it in some kind of way

Gramel

When a panther killed something, it became a carcass. They ate what they wanted, and it took them a few days to do that. And then other critters began marching up to the carcass. The critters we think are cute to ones we don’t think our cute and then it goes down to the insects. Then, the remains actually go into the ground and soil enriches the soil.

Tyler

I think that’s that was one of my favorite parts about the book is just all of these little details that you know, you’re learning while you’re going throughout. It’s more like a narrative than anything else. It’s not like a science textbook or anything like that. I think for me, the facts were coming in a way that was really readable.

Gramel

Mr. Pittman, in his own way is a comedian because I chuckled so much I got sore.  

Tyler

I think that’s because he chooses really good details.

Gramel

Well, and you can see he makes word pictures up over them, and it was funny. I got to her. It didn’t bother me that the panthers might eat somebody’s pet.

Tyler

We were rooting for the panthers.

Gramel

And you know life what civilians wasn’t, weren’t being very good to them.

Tyler

Well, then it talks about development and the habitat and how certain people were on the land. Maybe they shouldn’t have been but people in the state and the politics which we won’t spoil, I didn’t feel great about certain things after reading that.

There’s a lot of Florida natural history in it, but there’s also a lot of drama. You’re getting drama, you’re getting facts about the state and the environment. I read the book in a day.

Tyler

Well, I found now here I am 77 years old. I was born and raised here and lived here all my life. And there were so many parts of Florida I had never heard the names of even some of the lakes. I had an uncle Tommy that went fishing in freshwater lakes and the names of the towns and the counties. Some of them I had just never heard of. So, he put a lot of research in it and I found that part very interesting to me, and I believe he was as fearless as some of the characters who were actual real people. They were fearless.

Animal State Trivia!

Tyler

In the last segment, we talked about Craig’s book, and now we’re gonna play a quick game of animal state trivia. Now, I did not tell Gramel, we’re gonna be playing this game. So, all the answers are right off the top of her head. I’m pulling this information from the University of Florida’s I FA s extension site. So we’ll just go from there.

So, what do you think Florida’s state marine mammal is?

Gramel

I would say the manatee because that’s The one that we hear the most about in the papers that they needed to help also through the years.

Tyler

Ding, ding, ding, correct. Florida State marine mammal is the West Indian manatee. The state legislator designated the West Indian manatee as Florida’s marine mammal in 1975. Despite the name these manatees are native to Florida and portions of Central and South America. They can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh 3000 pounds.

Gramel

Manatees are heavy set and joyful.

Tyler

They’re so cute. They’re see cows! Have you ever seen one out and when you’re swimming or anything like that?

Gramel

Not really, because you know, it’s kind of hard to swim enough fresh water anymore. I used to swim in fresh water. Back when I was growing up to I was a teenager and a young mom. I didn’t even see alligators back then. Much less a manatee.

Tyler

And so the manatees their habitats can be rivers, canals, estuaries and saltwater base. I definitely remember being at the beach while a pot of manatees swam by in salt water.

Gramel

That must have been an experience. It was it was pretty great.

Tyler

Yeah. Okay, so speaking of saltwater, what do you think is Florida state’s saltwater mammal?

Gramel

Is it nice or not nice?

Tyler

Well, it can be nice, depending. But hey, it is also the mascot of a football team.

Gramel

A porpoise?

Tyler

Yes!

Florida designated the playful bottlenose dolphin as a state saltwater mammal in 1975. They can grow up to be six to nine feet and weight 332 pounds. 140 pounds.

Gramel

Now I have seen them when I’m out in a boat or even in a restaurant that is out on the water. And they’re just cute little showoffs because they know people love them.

Tyler

Now this next one is easy. If you get this one wrong, I’m going to be so sad.

What is Florida’s state reptile?

Gramel

I’m gonna say, alligator.

Tyler

Yep!

So far, so good. three out of three.

The American alligator was designated the state’s reptile in 1987.

Gramel

That’s the year you were born!

Tyler

Exactly. So I you know, and I love alligator. I mean, I’ve done a lot of research on them. And I write about alligators in my book as well. I’m kind of obsessed with them.

Gramel

My friend Jessica says her little Dog Olivia has a stomach problem, and she feeds her alligators meat. Where does she get the meat?

Tyler

And why did that help the stomach?

Gramel

I do not know. And Jessica is really into her dog so this there must be a good reason.

Violet used to be her service dog and now she just you know is retired and I don’t know it must be I would say easier to digest. Because Violet eats baby food, vegetables. She’ll really load up when baby food is on sale. Violet has like about seven or eight castles. That is her dog bed she has a dog bed like in every room and she’s real pretty she’s copper color.

Tyler

So I have two more for you. What is the Florida state bird?

Gramel

I’m going to say the pink guys.

Tyler

The flamingos. Yeah. Good guess. And that makes sense because a lot of people associate Florida with the flamingos.

Gramel

Okay, my second guess is going to be eagle.

Tyler

It’s actually the northern Mockingbird. This bird was designated as Florida’s state bird in 1927. And is also the state bird for other states. Very popular.

I do like mockingbirds; I see them out in the yard. But I do think a flamingo or a pelican would be a better choice.

Gramel

Something more dramatic.

Tyler

Yeah, a little different. Okay, and the last thing I’m gonna ask is not a state animal, but it’s a state food. So what is the state pie?

Gramel

My favorite – key lime.  Of course, my favorite changes with whoever suggests the name of a pie. That becomes my favorite.

Chat with Craig Pittman!

Tyler

We both have read the book and we do have some questions. But if you could maybe just start by giving a little bit of background on your writing and maybe some of your other books that kind of brought you to this boo.

Craig

For about 20 years, I covered environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times – Florida’s largest newspaper, used to be known as the St. Petersburg Times. I think it’s the best job in American journalism because, number one, they have to pay you to go out and ride around on a boat now an again. But number two, you get to write about some of the really wild crazy stuff that goes on in Florida like pythons battling alligators in the Everglades. The taxpayers footing the bill for the captive breeding of endangered rats at the Lowry Park Zoo. Religious group smuggling in giant African land snails from Africa because they think drinking the mucus makes them healthy, but it has the opposite effect

Gramel

How did that work out for them?

Craig Pittman 

Yeah, it doesn’t work. One of the ladies actually put the snails up under her dress and got on a plane in Nigeria flew to Miami and so I just picture the guy sitting in the seat next to her going Man Did You Know Your dress is slowly undulating back and forth. These snails are huge.

 So, my first book which I co-wrote with a coworker named Matthew Wade. We did a big investigation about why Florida was still losing wetlands, even though they’re supposedly protected under the law and that won some national awards. And led to us writing this book called Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss.  

And then second book was Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species, which I got the name from somebody t shirt at a public hearing, by the way, because I went to this public hearing with 3000 people that showed up to scream at the Fish and Wildlife Service, about new rules for building docks that were supposed to limit how many new docks are being built in order to protect manatees. And this guy showed up with a T shirt that said, Stop the manatee insanity I thought, you know, that would make a good book title someday. So, if you write a book and you need a title, look around at the T shirts.

Yes, so that was the first two books are both you know, sort of environmental history with a little bit of investigation. [My next book was] The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid. A man named Michael Kovacs went down to Peru and found what ended up being the most spectacular discovery in a century among orchids and brought it back He smuggled it in, took it to Selby botanical gardens to get it named after himself which was tantamount to hanging a sign saying please come arrest me because, sure enough, Peru sent a demand to the US government saying we want our flower back. Armed federal agents raided Kovacs greenhouse and seized all 300 of his orchids. Plus, his proposal for a new TV show called the orchid hunter with Michael Kovac. Selby gardens was bombarded with subpoenas, scientists began to turn on each other. Selby itself when facing criminal charges just turned into a big mess. And this book is it’s the center of scandal. It’s the only book I know of it’s been classified as true crime and gardening. I always feel bad for the bookstore clerks trying to figure out which shelf it goes on.

Not long after that came out. I was asked to do a blog for Slate Magazine about Florida to write for that 30 days about what makes Florida different. What makes it special. What makes it the most, I contend the most interesting state as always, the problem wasn’t finding enough to write about the problem was fine. Finding a way to squeeze it all in because there’s so much an agent in New York contacted me and said, we think 2016 would be a great year to have a book come out about Florida. And based on your blog, we think you’re the guy to write it. And so he helped me prepare a book proposal and we sent it around. And 15 publishers said, No, we don’t think people really want to read about Florida and then one of them St. Martin’s Press fortunately said yes, that led to Oh, Florida: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which got rave reviews in the New York Times, the LA Times The Washington Post, and when upon the New York Times bestseller list for about a minute.

Tyler

Well, hey, a minute more than most people!

Craig

It means we can put that sticker on the paperback edition rare Times bestseller.

Tyler

You know, that’s so interesting to me though, because I’ve heard that from other folks too, about how publishers don’t think people want to read about Florida, but they constantly want to read about Florida. It seems I didn’t understand the wisdom there.

Craig

I don’t either. I mean, Lauren Groff puts out a book of short stories titled Florida and people eat it up. It’s as if they just don’t have a mindset that goes beyond the borders of New York. Sometimes I think, you know, if you presented them with a book about New York, they’d be like, Oh, yeah, everybody wants to read about New York. Well, maybe not. You know, and, and honestly, a lot of people from New Haven, Florida anyway.

Tyler

Exactly. I mean, it’s like Florida is a lot of people and call for retirement or whatever. So they’re already kind of interested in the state, I think,

Craig

Yeah. Or they have visited here, or they know people who live here because. You know, we’ve got a larger population now than New York does. Two-thirds of our Florida’s population comes from somewhere else, so the odds are somebody picking up a book knows someone in Florida or has been to Florida or goes there on a regular basis.

Gramel

It’s now two-thirds?

Craig

Yes, ma’am. The only state with a larger percentage of nonnatives, I believe is in Nevada,

Gramel

I would have almost thought that it was more than that.

Craig

Just think of all the kids being born. They get counted whether they stick around.

While I’ve been covering environmental issues for the for the Times, they had been writing a lot of stories about Panthers about the efforts to save the Florida Panthers are state animal, you know, and yet it very nearly went extinct. And every time I would write one of the stories, I would think this would make a great topic for a book, that plot was very twisty things happen that you know, you wouldn’t expect the characters were fascinating, but though I didn’t have an ending, and you can’t really write a book without an ending in mind. So then about three years ago, I finally got a good ending. I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, but a hopeful ending. And so I sat down and started writing the book proposal and that became cat tail, which a lot of people tell me is a very, they’ve enjoyed it as a quarantine read, you know, they, I think the hopeful ending helps a lot.

Tyler

I could see that without giving away the ending.

Craig

Yeah, yeah. That’s the hard part. People ask me about it. I’m like, Well, I don’t I don’t want to tell you what it is. I want you to come up on it organically. You’re like, Yeah, but let’s talk about it. You can say this much you can say that at one point there were about 20. Panthers left. And now there’s more than 200. So they’re doing better than they were, but read the book to find out why.

Gramel

Like, I thought your characters were fascinating. And they were real life characters, and the ones that were good, were very, very good. The politicians are the people that always let me down. And I, I don’t know why I let them let me down. And but I don’t want to get jaded. And then the females seem to be just as passionate as the men.

Craig

I didn’t, you know, put flags on it, but one of the themes in the book is women in science and the difficulty they face in dealing with their male colleagues and male superiors and how often they’re looked down on and not believed and that was certainly the case here. Mellie being number one example. And Deborah Jansen. They were viewed with some suspicion by their colleagues and viewed as we know more than you do. You know, how dare you speak up like this? So

Tyler

I thought your characters just were really, from the beginning to the end were fascinating. Someone we’ve talked a lot about was McBride as a really compelling character. What was it like kind of speaking with him and what was your process getting him to talk because it did seem he was very reticent?

Craig

He does not like to talk about himself. He doesn’t like to talk period, but he really doesn’t like to talk about himself. I got very fortunate early on. I got word that he was going to be at this conference at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, which is about five minutes away from where I was working. So I went over there specifically to see him and if possible, talk to him in person and he was exactly what had been described. As he you know, he shows up he’s wearing this white Stetson, he wears it indoors. He wears it all through the conference and never takes it off. And he gives this great PowerPoint where, you know, he’s talking like this, but he’s saying all these really remarkable things. And so and I think I described the scene afterwards where I went up to him and asked him about his pocketknife that showed up. And I was, you know, a smart aleck, like, I just I can’t help myself. I end up doing that all the time. He talked a little bit and then he and Deborah Janssen was there. And so, so there was the guy who started the panther party, Chris Belden. And so these four absolutely crucial characters are all there in the same room, and they decide they’re going to go to lunch together. And so I kind of invited myself along and hung out with them over lunch. And that was really great. It was a great experience and enabled me to kind of get to know them a little bit better, but Roy was still reticent about talking about it. At one point, he took my notebook and drew me a map of Panther habitat and then in the middle of it drew this big circle for this proposed development that was going to be right smack dab in the middle of it. And I kept that map stuck up on my desk until the day I got laid off from the times in March, just as a reminder that, you know, sometimes that’s a great thing to ask people to do when you’re talking to them is show me just to say, Show me and so he, you know, he actually did that. But the, the thing that I find the way I finally got him to talk to me at length was I said, Look, I’m not trying to make you a hero, but you’re a witness, you saw things that nobody else saw. And you did things nobody else observed. And so, if I can’t hear from you about what happened, I’m not going to be telling the real story. And that finally got to him. He admitted that that was true. So then he said, Okay, what do you want to know we had this couple of long interviews over the phone at that point, and then I got into writing the book and got up to the chapter that called him Mary about where he makes this very important trip to Texas. And I realized Roy’s never talked about that. He’s never explained what that process was like about doing that, and this crucial thing to the story. So I called him up and asked him about it. And he said, Oh, yeah, funny story, and he tells me this hysterical tale about him in the blindfold, mule. Just add me on the floor. laughs I mean, it’s psychologically it’s kind of the low point in the story where you think, you know, Panthers are gone. And Roy’s got this great yarn. Yeah. And because he’s just he, he really is a great storyteller. So, I was glad I got him. That’s my favorite story in the book.

Tyler

I think what is really great about the book is how you balance history with science with storytelling, which I think is really hard to do. So, what is your kind of process with the research?

Craig

The process I usually follow when I’m writing a book is I’ll sit down an outline that do like a rough outline in the very beginning and I’ll try and have like 18 or 19 points, you know, one for each chapter and say, okay, in this chapter, I’m going to say this, and this chapter, I’m going to say that, and then I’ll go back and outline each chapter, how each chapter is going to go. Then, I sit down and just start writing it from the beginning. Like it’s a series of 19 or 20 feature stories for a weekend addition to the paper, which is something I’ve done for 30 or 40 years.  You look for some connective tissue so that you can make a transition from one chapter to the next. And that’s something I’ve learned from reading. I read a lot of thrillers; they know keep your reading. I’ve kind of stolen some ideas from thrillers about how to get people to keep going on with the book.

Gramel

I like the way you would bring up a president. And so you knew whatever president had an input there be a time period, time period. You know, I like that too.

Craig

Yeah. I mean, you don’t wanna hit people over the head with stuff, but if you can work it in subtly that that works. The other thing I do when I before I do that, the outline is I’ll build a timeline to say, okay, you know, this happened here, this happened here. This happened here for Panthers. I’d actually done a special report on Panthers a sort of a two-story investigative package back in 2010. And I had built this big elaborate timeline, then not just for the Panthers but also built a separate one for Roy McBride about their lives and so, I could go into more detail about their experiences. That was really, really crucial to figure out the flow of the book is to say, okay, you know, at the same time, this is happening, this is also happening, you know, that kind of thing. Those are probably my two. My two tricks for writing nonfiction books is, you know, do those two things right at the beginning. And that way you kind of have a roadmap to showing you which way you need to go with your story. For the next book. I’ve got the timeline and I’m so I’m just now starting to do the do the outline of the chapter. So I couldn’t do one without the other.

Tyler

So I wanted to ask a very specific question and you might not answer this one, but that’s okay. And your acknowledgments you were talking about your wife being your pure one of your readers and how she like pointed out upon tightness and how, what was that? Which pun was it?

Craig

I think I know which one it is. The acronyms is PMS.

Tyler

That’s what I thought!

Craig

My wife said, I’m surprised you didn’t make a joke about this. I’m like, holy cow. Right I should have. I’m not gonna say we have this a similar sense of humor. We have a very simpatico senses of humor. On our third date we sat and watched a videotape of Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Gramel

To me, one of the most most manly sayings a man can do is be devoted to his wife and the way you brought them with McBride and you brought that in there with your with your wife, to me that is manly.

Tyler

McBride was her favorite character. So we talked a little about him.

Gramel

What’s up with the bad guy of the story that got by with lying and lying and lying?

Craig

Well, I was gonna say the two, probably the two people who were kind of the villains to the story other than, you know, developers and so forth, are the Fish and Wildlife Service guy, Sam Hamilton, who would not let his staff stand in the way of any development in Panther habitat. And then Dave, the guy who used to be the champion of Panthers, and saving Panther habitat, and then switch sides and was working to help the developers. Both of them unfortunately, died. Hamilton had a heart attack about a year after he became head of the fish and wallet service. And I think I mentioned in the book that Dave died in a plane crash in 2008. So, I never got to sit down and do a long interview with him. He was doing research on bears and he was doing radio telemetry readings I believe, you know, just like they do with the Panthers when they fly around getting the radio readings, he had put radio transmitters on bears in Central Florida to track them. I’m not sure they ever completely figured out what had caused that. I don’t I don’t remember, they figured out what if it was a mechanical or if it was pilot error. But because Dave died before I really started, you know, working on a lot of Panther stuff. I didn’t get to do the big long interview with him that I really kind of needed to do. So I had to I had to read everything he wrote, including his book, I went through his personnel file from the Wildlife Commission. I read every interview he gave, and the thing that helped the most was a college student who was working on his post secondary degree. Yeah, had done a long interview with Dave it wasn’t a perfect interview by any means. He let him get away with without answering some questions, but it was helpful. He did have some some good stuff in there and the college student said you can use three quotes From this transcript, I was like, dang. Okay, well, I guess I better choose wisely.

And I should say that, that Dave still has a lot of fans. And they were not happy. They’re not happy with the book, and they have let me know via social media. I understand their frustration with it. But I can’t change the facts. I can’t change what happened. I mean, you know, I don’t know of another scientist who’s had an entire science review team go through everything, everything that scientist has written and say, yeah, you screwed up. They got very angry with me for even reminding them of that, because it’s like, you know, when he died, all the obituaries were very glowing. Oh, Dave, this wonderful champion of Florida’s environment. Not so much. You know, and one guy actually has asked me right before the book came out, is this gonna be another hatchet job on Dave because they didn’t I written about Dave in the 2010 series and this guy was upset about me doing it then. And it was like, Well, I don’t think it’s a hatchet job, I present both the good and the bad because he really did save the Panther science program when he first took it over. But on the other hand, he really helped to get a lot of development built in Panther habitat that probably shouldn’t have been built. They did not want to hear that.

Gramel

you were writing the truth. And I just stick to that.

Craig

Yeah. Well, you know, Jack Nicholson once said, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Gramel

it was, you know, very interesting. I had no clue that I would end up being a champion of panthers. It brought back a lot of memories to me when you were talking about the countryside. You didn’t do well on this countryside, but you would bring it in, you know, somehow or the other. And I been born and raised here. I remember those kinds of things. And that was like if I was almost reading, high school yearbook kind of just brought back some good memories. When I was growing up. One of our big entertainments is Sunday drives and my dad would love to take us after church and after doing the dishes and we would go on a Sunday drive and so some of that countryside just brought back. That kind of memories being in the car with my brother, my mom and dad seeing some of this, you know, you’d say there’s a cow or There’s another count. Oh, look at that. Okay. It was so can be very interesting if you didn’t have a radio.

Craig

Well, I mean, Lord knows, in Florida quoted a guy named, who’s also Florida native saying that if you’re a Florida native, if you grew up here, then you often feel like the boy in the sixth sense, because you see things that nobody else sees you remember things, you know, there are there anymore. And it’s sort of an eerie experience.

Tyler

I kind of want to shift from the book to you were talking about what you’re working on and outlining now. So, what is the project?  

Craig

My next book is actually just a collection of columns and stories that I’ve done over the years, and it’s called the State You’re In: Florida men, Florida, women and other wildlife, and that’ll come out next year. The next nonfiction book project, I’m working on trying to do a proposal for his book I’m calling the Snake That Swallowed Florida, and it’s about how pythons and data the Everglades And how that how they’ve changed things. To me. It’s a fascinating topic because that these pythons are endangered in their native habitat. But over here, they’re thriving. As with the Panthers, there’s all kinds of fascinating characters involved lots of twists and turns in the plot, some government and private industry collusion that ended up being bad for Florida. I know you’re shocked to hear that. And there’s only been one book written on this topic. And it was written back in I want to say 2002. So a lot has changed since then. But that book has a great title. I envy the title snakes in the grass, which is a great, it’s a great title. And one of the things I do a lot of times is I’ll write a magazine story, sort of as a prelude to doing the book sort of as a way to think through some of the issues and get somebody else to pay for me doing some of my research and stuff like that. I just did a big piece for Flamingo magazine about the women who hunt pythons because there are quite a few that do that. And I picked six and interviewed them and they were all very interesting characters with different backgrounds. The one who actually caught the most pythons male or female is this 61 year old ceramics teacher from South Florida. And I asked her what her secret was to catching a snake. She said, there’s no secret. You just have to show up, you go out and she goes out almost every night looking for snakes. And that’s why she’s been so successful. And she drives around. She trips around on these ladies in the Everglades, in her SUV with huge bright lights on top and listens to audiobooks while she’s driving around. So like she says, I like to listen to historical fiction or books about the Everglades while I’m in the Everglades.

Tyler

I wrote a piece about some Python hunters in the Everglades a few years back and what something that reminds me of how it was like meditative for folks, and I’m over here being like, yes, terrified to be out there. And they’re like, no, this is a peaceful time for me and I’m like, we live two different lives. I’m happy that you’re here, but I can’t do that.

Craig

Yeah. Well, I mean that one of the women, maybe the best known was this woman named Donna. She has been a lifelong collector of snakes. She considers herself a, you know, they call themselves herpers. And so for her, this is a way to get paid to go out and do what she would do anyway, which is collect snakes, the difference being now she has to kill them. And so she apologizes to each snake before she puts a bullet in his brain.  The scientists have told everybody don’t eat pythons. Their bodies are full of mercury pollution in the Everglades. Well, Donna didn’t believe it. And so she got a Mercury testing kit and so she tests the snakes as she brings them in. And if they have a low enough level of mercury, then she cooks them because she doesn’t believe in killing anything you can’t eat. She has experimented with recipes with Python eggs. Python meat, she said cooking them as in a liver and onions recipe is particularly tasty.

Tyler

I’ve eaten Python once, because there was on pizza down in I think Fort Myers but they shipped in the snakes from Vietnam because there were farms there.

Craig

Yeah, well, the other thing she does is she makes her own Python jerky and then eats the Python jerky while she’s hunting for Python.

Gramel

I can’t promise you I’m gonna read that.

Craig

Yeah, my wife’s already said she’s gonna have a problem written that.

Tyler

You mentioned earlier too, that you were working for the Times for a long time and you’re no longer working there, but you’re freelancing, or you’re working for other publications, how has that changed your reporting and approach to your writing?

Craig

I worked for the Times for 30 years, 21 of them covering environmental issues. And then in March, mid March, I got laid off, which was not a huge surprise, they laid off several people the year before, including one editor had been there for 31 years. And I figured, well, if they got Roy, I mean, I’ll probably be next. And sure enough, it happened. It was kind of funny. It was our second day of working from home because of the pandemic. Basically, the message Yeah, just stay there to come in anymore ever, except to clean out your desk. But shortly after that, you know, God was watching out for me, I guess, and I was hired to do a weekly environmental column for the Florida Phoenix and online news service based in Tallahassee, and then I freelance stuff on the side to the Washington Post Politico, I mentioned Flamingo. I guess the way it has changed is that Before working for the times, I would spend the day working on stories at the times office and dealing with whatever was going on the beat. And so you know, sometimes I’d have to write stuff immediately that that very day and sometimes it would be things I’d be working on for a long time, like, the Panther series took me two years to pull together before it got published in 2010. And then I would work on the book stuff at night and on the weekends usually, will now it’s all kind of jumbled together and I’ll work on whatever’s most pressing right in front of me right away, so and sometimes that means working through the weekend. So, over the weekend, I started working on my next column for the Phoenix which will be running on Thursdays that to turn it in on Wednesday. So, I’ve got I’ve got that I got a freelance piece that I started writing over the weekend also. And then in the meantime, I’m also I’m doing a podcast too called Welcome to Florida. So, I was trying to lineup a guest for that and we’re going to talk about the Skunk Ape by the way.

Tyler

Which has an in appearance in Cat Tale.

Craig

Yes, yes, exactly and will show up again and will show up again and I guess that’s the one big overlapping character is the Skunk Ape because a lot of the Python hunters stay at the Skunk Ape research headquarter campground. We make a lot more money if you capture the skunk.

Gramel

Have you ever stayed at some of those grounds?

Craig

I have not. When I went out with the Python hunters in the magazine story. I actually stayed at the Miccosukee casino which I’d never been to before. So that was that was pretty interesting. And I mean it was it was a great trip because on the way we stopped off at corkscrew swamp and I finally got to see a ghost orchid which I’d never seen but it’s very rare type of orchid and they have one called a super ghost orchid because it puts out five or six blooms at a time and they last through the summer and all the way into the fall in some cases. You can see it, it’s about 100 feet off their boardwalk. If you got binoculars or something, you can see it clear as day. So we stopped often corkscrew swamp to see that. And then on the way back, we stopped off at this concrete research headquarters, just to confirm that what we’d heard was true that a lot of the Python hunters stayed there. And sure enough, it was true.

Tyler

So with a lot of the reporting, especially for environmental stuff, like it can be test reported, but you have to go out in the field a lot of the time. So how has that dealing? Right? Do you get to go out in the field? How has that changed that during COVID?

Craig

I mean, I, I would love to go back out with some of the women I wrote about Flamingo and they have sort of standing invitations from several of them. And I know I can’t go not until this, this thing kind of dies down because I you know, I have a responsibility on my family to stay healthy. So I can’t put myself in a position where that would change. I mean, the only way I could see going out on something on a story would be to you know if it was a way to do it safely to to you Don’t have to go canoeing down a river or something like that where everybody’s in their own separate vessel, you know, something like that. It really hurts because Florida has this great award-winning state park system. We’ve got these great hiking trails all over the state, beautiful beaches, beaches that are considered world class. And it’s just to read, it’s really not safe to go out there right now. So I’m having to do everything over the phone. I mean, the good thing is that in the 21 years, I was covering the environment for the times I did go a lot of different places. So I know, I know what they’re like just from my memory and you know, I can write about them. So for instance, this week, I’m writing a column about Apalachicola oysters and how the state Wildlife Commission is going to put them off limits for five years because the fishery has crashed so badly that’s what it’s going to take to try and bring them back. I have very vivid memories of eating Apalachicola oysters and Apalachicola so and also I know how from prior stories, I know how important the oyster fishery is to the to the human It’s they’ve been, you know, they’ve been talking oysters out of the bay there for 100 years. And now suddenly to say, we’re going to stop for five and the industry’s support of this, they’re like, you know, this is what it’s going to take to save the future of our town. It’s it’s a sign. And I say this a lot to people. And to me, it’s just blindingly obvious that in Florida, I think more than any other state, the environment is the economy. And if you screw up the environment, you’re going to screw up the economy. We really saw that with the oil spill back in 2010, where it kind of shut down the economy of the of the panhandle counties that ended up ended up with oil on their beaches. So even more so with the red tide that lasted for 16 months. Back in 2017, 2018, where it just it just killed the economy. So, of all these towns that depended on tourism all along the coast. So you know, you would think given that that government would pay a lot more attention to protecting the environment, and yet surprisingly, they don’t because the Florida way, is the only one about tomorrow and not anything beyond that. And mostly is to think about how can I make a buck today? You gotta do? Well, you know, I always like to say if the if the people lead the leaders will follow. So we certainly saw that in the 70s, where, you know, we had the first Earth Day protest and a 10th of the American population took to the streets to complain about pollution, and suddenly, voila, Congress is interested in environmental issues. Richard Nixon creates the EPA, they pass the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and a whole bunch of other environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. So if the people lead, the leaders will follow. You just have to get the leaders attention. That’s the big thing.

Tyler

And sometimes you have to confront them in a bathroom if they are not wanting to talk to you.

Craig 

It cracks me up when I sometimes get criticized from people who say, Oh, you’re in the pocket of Democrats. And, you know, your only complaint about going public is like, Well, you know, I want Follow Bob Graham into a men’s room for a question I want to answer. So, I feel pretty ideologically balanced.

Gramel

Are you doing anything that you always wanted to do but never had time to do

Craig

Well, sort of I wrote a novel back in 2017. Right. It’s sort of as a challenge to myself, and nobody wanted to publish it. Because it was so awful. So, I rewrote it. And so I’m, I’m finishing up the rewrite now. It’s much better. And I’m hoping I’m hoping somebody will finally you know, cast a friendly eye on it and say, yeah, we publish worse. Yeah, we’ll take it’s a it’s a wacky Florida crime novel, but it’s got a sort of a serious environmental message in it.

Tyler

I think last time I saw you, you had mentioned that you’re writing more fiction.

Craig

I’ve written three or four short stories that had gotten published, which just made me ecstatic. But then the novel I really got into I really got invested in the characters who, to me a really interesting one is a Florida native who used to have a sort of a shadowy job with the government is what he calls a creative problem solver. Okay. And now he’s back in his hometown, renovating old houses for a living and then he’s framed for a murder. He didn’t commit a crime. And he teams up with the local newspaper reporter who’s there working in a one-person Bureau, so she’s kind of the only reporter in town. And so they team up together to solve the crime, which also involves the shooting of a dolphin, the most famous dolphin in Florida. Wow. Okay.

Tyler

I’m into it.

Craig

Yeah. And so the title is the Death of a Dolphin. And it starts off with the discovery of the dead dolphin and he takes it down to the completely real marine mammal pathology laboratory in St. Petersburg where they bring all the dead manatees and dolphins for examination. And they do they open up the dolphin and discover a human thumb in its stomach. But there is there’s a logical explanation for how it got there. And you find that out at the end of the book.

Tyler

So you mentioned your podcast that you’re starting. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that came about?

Craig

It’s called Welcome to Florida, and my producer and cohost is going to be Chad Scott, who is a radio guy from Amelia Island, and contacted me because he had read Cat Tale and loved it. And he started following me on Twitter and saw the things I posted on Twitter and said, You know, I would love to get this guy onto a podcast to talk about what makes Florida special. So, he contacted me pitch the idea and I said, Oh, all I have to do is show up on the same time every week and talk I can do that. He called you know, I arranged the guests. He calls me up, we set it all up, we record it and then it posts a week later, we’ve done shows on alligators. We did a show on Florida’s role in the civil rights movement, where we got an interview with the woman who literally wrote the book about American beach, the only Beach Resort that allowed African Americans in the 50s and 60s. She wasn’t she was who by the way, we ended up gossiping about Zora Neale Hurston second marriage. She was 48 married a 23-year-old who later accused her of using Voodoo on him.

Gramel

Why not?

Craig

And then the one we recorded last week, which is going to post on Thursday was on the villages there was a guy who spent a month living in the villages and then wrote a book about the villages. It’s called Welcome to leisureville.

Tyler

Oh, yeah, I think I’ve seen that book. We actually were talking about the villages the other day on our on our show because it’s like how can you not any subject.

Craig

We had intended to do like a 15-20 minute interview with him and spend about 45 minutes with him because he had thought very deeply about the villages and why it is the way it is, and, and that kind of thing. So it was it was really interesting. So and our goal is to just kind of educate people about Florida about different aspects of life in Florida and if we can we try and offer a Floridian survival tip on each episode. Like you know, if you if you step on a sand spur, lick your fingers before you try to remove it.

Tyler

That saved me many times.

Gramel

That’s not just an old wives tale.

Craig

A lot of it’s just common sense. Like, you know, the best parking space is not the one closest to the store. It’s the one that’s in the shade So our goal, like I said, is to educate people about Florida. I mean, because we got 800 900 new people moving in every day. So somebody’s got to teach them that stuff, right?

Tyler

They got either got to learn it from us or learn it the hard way.

Craig

Right. So, it’s much easier to learn it from a podcast.

Tyler

Is there anything else that you want to touch on that you have coming up or anything like that?

Craig

I would encourage people to check out the Florida Phoenix, which is a feisty little publication run by experienced Florida journalists, and they do some excellent work and have some great columnists in Lucy Morgan and Diane Roberts. Look for my book, the state you’re in coming next year from University Press, Florida.

Tyler

Well, Craig, thank you so much for taking time to hang out with us today. It has been a lot of fun.

Gramel

You are a delight to talk to.

Craig

Thank you very much. Thank you so much. I enjoyed doing it. You asked good questions. Make sure you make me sound like James Earl Jones. Okay.

Tyler

Put some auto tune on my voice or whatever you have to do make me sound a little better.

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