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Can Mickey Mouse Coexist with Bears, Panthers, and Alligators?

Further reading: How pet reptiles are flourishing in Florida by preying on bird populations.

In Florida, 12 acres are developed each hour. In the land of snow birds, theme parks, golf courses, and ever-expanding terra cotta tract housing, is there a way for wetlands and wild animals to not just survive, but thrive alongside man’s ravenous appetite for development?

At The Bitter Southerner, Will Wellman follows a small team and their documentary crew through forests and swamps as they study the potential to create a wildlife corridor connecting the last remaining wild places in the Sunshine State.

Even in my own Floridian imagination, my home state has shifted from wild green to lifeless gray. Florida is no longer “dotted” with development, but with wilderness. Come to Florida, the advertisements say, there are gators, tropical flowers, wide open oceans. BUT DON’T WORRY, they can’t reach you from your air-conditioned hotel room, restaurant, Disney vacation. Come and look! You definitely don’t have to touch.

Joe continued his research on a small bear population in Glades and Highlands counties, attempting to understand how these bears managed to live in an area so heavily affected by human development. One of the bears Joe was tracking, a male given the colorful name M34, went on a journey of nearly 500 miles — wandering from Lake Placid through the Everglades Headwaters, then toward Celebration, a planned community outside of Disney World. M34 bumped up against I-4 many times but was never able to cross; he eventually made his way back south to the ranches and natural land of the Lake Wales Ridge area.

M34’s problem is a common issue for animals throughout the state of Florida. Growing development and infrastructure across the state means isolated habitats, and there are scant pathways connecting these wild areas.

The swamp along Reedy Creek is relatively dry. The trunks of trees throughout the swamp bear the marks of both seasonal flooding and drought. In a month, when the summer rains begin, the waters will quickly rise to the higher water lines. For now, though, the ground is a mucky labyrinth of dead vegetation, fallen trees, and downed branches. The humidity here is palpable; it presses against you, as does the heat.

This is no place for claustrophobics. But of all the landscapes I’ve had the good fortune to explore, none makes me feel as alive as a swamp does. I don’t mean exuberance or joy. It is a sense of life fed by ever-present danger. Swamps are marked by death — all the rotting organic matter that mars its floor and gives it life — and by risk — every nook and cranny could hide snakes, gators, and more. A swamp jars you from default, autopilot amble and into an alertness of a dark, living world around you. Rilke’s words reverberate as a mantra for this wooden morass: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”

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