Thirty-three years ago I woke up in the morning expecting the doldrums of being a volunteer at a writers conference, instead, I had one of the greatest experiences in my life. During my first semester at Edison College in Ft Myers, Florida, I volunteered to help with the setup for a writers convention on campus. This convention included local authors, one of whom was James P. McMullen, author of “Cry of the Panther.” When volunteers were asked to pet sit for Tracker, a 120 lb Florida panther. Tracker was Jim’s inspiration for his book, and companion. James would introduce Tracker to the audience and then she would be brought in her crate to an empty classroom where I would watch her while he was conducted his session with aspiring writers. James told me “You can let her out of her crate if you want to” as he closed the door on his way back to the conference.
Tracker wasn’t exactly tame. James had been left a bunch of acreage in south Florida by his parents and when he was awarded custody of Tracker he simply put a pet door in the back door of his house so she could come and go as she pleased. She would hunt and on occasion, drag the kill into his house. Jim quickly learned that he had to get rid of all the carpet and replace it with tile.
Tracker was in season, and obviously not comfortable as she paced in her crate and howled. She panted and seemed to not be able to get comfortable. Not realizing that he was making a joke about letting her out, I decided to open the door to her crate. Upon releasing her from the crate it dawned on me that she might not be happy with me! I decided that my best course of action was to sit on one of the tables and pretend I wasn’t there. She sniffed the open door and padded out of the crate. She paced the perimeter of the classroom, pausing to sniff here and there. Eventually, she decided that she wanted to investigate me. She jumped on the table and walked right up to me. She began sniffing my neck and behind my ears. Despite the fact that she could have easily killed or maimed me, I wasn’t scared of this majestic cat. Instead, I felt only compassion and I wanted to comfort her. She had sniffed me almost head to toe, drooling on me in the process, lingering at the back of my neck. She wound herself around my left side and pressed her head into my chest. Reminiscent of a big house cat, she seemed to demand attention. Slowly I reached up and began to stroke her head and scratch her chin. This pleased her well, so she laid across my lap.
Tracker sprawled across the table with her head and front paws in my lap. She was happy when I rubbed her ears and scratched her chin. She did not purr, rather grunted and huffed demonstrating her she approved of my attention. Likewise, when I stopped she would huff and press at me with her massive paws. Much to my chagrin, when she was really happy she flexed just like a house cat puncturing my jeans and unfortunately my leg.
Tracker really calmed down when I rubbed her belly. When I tried to stop, she’d howl until I commenced to belly rubs again. When James broke out of his session to come check on us, he opened the door to the classroom and was surprised to see Tracker out of her crate and in my lap. Tracker sat up and hissed at him. Jim chuckled and said that he really hadn’t expected me to let her out of the crate. He told me that he was going to be wrapping up in an hour and asked if I was okay until then. I told him I was fine. Tracker once again expressed her displeasure with Jim with a howl. He closed the door and went back to the conference.
For the next hour Tracker lay across my lap, content as long as I stroked her belly and rubbed her behind the ears. When Jim came back, he walked in the room, squatted and called her by name. She jumped up and off the table, and soundlessly strode up to her best man.
She may have been upset that he loaded her up in a crate and drove her to a writers conference, but they were family and the bond was evident as she greeted him and he played with her.
Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me when I was with Tracker, but this is a photo of a cougar in the Grandfather Mountain Zoo I took in 2003. Florida panthers, cougars and mountain lions are the same cat. For more information about the Florida panther please visit this site.