NAPLES - Dick Brewer is a lucky man. He is a volunteer at the 13,500-acre Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary -- in his opinion the most beautiful wilderness in southwest Florida.
He strolls the 2-mile boardwalk and identifies plants and animals for visitors to the sanctuary northeast of Naples.
He points out wood storks and alligators, swamp lilies and awesome cypress trees that were saplings when Spaniards clanked ashore in 1513. "Keep your eyes open,'' he tells visitors. "You are liable to see anything out here.''
He never says, "You may even see a lion.'' They'd think he was daft. Florida panthers, big and secretive cats, are among the rarest mammals on earth. About 100 survive.
The chances of seeing one-- Buy a Lotto ticket instead.
But, like we said, Dick Brewer is a lucky man.
By the way, he always carries a rickety Panasonic videocamera just in case.
Over the years he has been lucky enough to capture, on that $250 camera, a black bear and her cubs. He was too scared to move, but not too scared to shoot video.
The bear sniffed him until her cubs passed behind her. Then she ambled down the boardwalk.
Another time he got video of a couple of otters in the grip of X-rated passion. Adults who wish to remain anonymous describe the film as pornographic.
On Tuesday, May 12, Brewer, 64, arrived early at Corkscrew. A retired high school teacher, he has volunteered there for 11 years. He said hello to Phil Nye, 76, a retired real estate salesman and a 14-year Corkscrew volunteer.
The nature-nutty friends padded down the boardwalk. The sanctuary had been open since 7 a.m. It was 8:15.
Phil Nye put on the brakes. "That's an odd deer,'' he said.
Dick Brewer whispered. "I've never seen a deer on the boardwalk.''
Twenty yards away stood a Florida panther.
As he turned on his camera, Brewer felt like Abraham Zapruder, the guy who took the famous JFK movie in Dallas in 1963. This was Brewer's chance to shoot the first clear video of a Florida panther -- in the wild -- in history.
Just a day before, Phil Nye had bought a digital still camera. The first photograph he ever snapped was of that panther.
"It has to know we're here,'' Nye whispered.
"But it doesn't seem to care we're here,'' Brewer whispered back.
In the next 44 seconds, as cameras whirred and clicked, the panther ambled down the boardwalk across a grassy prairie, past dog fennel, button bush and coastal plain willow. It disappeared where the boardwalk entered the deep cypress forest.
A half-mile away, near the ancient cypress trees in the heart of the sanctuary, a naturalist named Debbie Lotter was enjoying some bird-watching.
Behind her she heard a thump.
The cat, which apparently had left the boardwalk, had just jumped back onto it.
Fifteen feet away.
There is no record of a panther attack on a human in Florida. But the panther's cousin has attacked and killed people in the Rockies.
Lotter, 41, tried to remain calm as she faced the most imposing animal Florida has to offer. Seven feet long from nose to tail, about 100 pounds, the panther apparently had no interest in her.
Lotter retreated slowly anyway as the panther walked in the opposite direction.
Again it leaped off the boardwalk.
Where did it go-- Was it preparing to spring-- Was it going to kill her with a ferocious neck bite--
It was back on the boardwalk, but strolling in the opposite direction.
Lotter began her trot. Then she ran. Then she sprinted toward the sanctuary entrance, her heart pounding the whole way.
She was relieved to encounter Phil Nye and Dick Brewer bustling toward her.
"I saw a panther!'' she announced.
They had their own story. They had photographs and video to prove it.
Driving home that afternoon, nobody remembered to buy a Lotto ticket.