2017-05-11 / Arts & Entertainment News

Game warden adventures reveal an important side of Florida’s nature


¦ “Bad Guys, Bullets, and Boat Chases: True Stories of Florida Game Wardens” by Bob H. Lee. University Press of Florida. 272 pages. Hardcover, $24.95.

Though its main purpose lies elsewhere, Bob H. Lee’s vivid treatment of the life of game wardens underscores the fact that Florida has been impressively dedicated to the stewardship of natural resources. Across the Sunshine State, smaller and larger preserves — some quite enormous — protect the habitat of wildlife.

While Mr. Lee’s book enables us to visit stunning (and sometimes scraggly) locations, his focus is on the people who work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A combination of two previous agencies, FWC has more than 800 conservation law enforcement officers and another 1,300 additional employees. The conservation officers and investigators (game wardens) “have full police powers and statewide jurisdiction.” From the tales Mr. Lee has collected, readers will learn that this is no job for the timid.

LEE LEE There are bad guys out there illegally killing or capturing por wildlife for ns profit. They are often skilled, sometimes organized into gangs and always ready too take enormous risks too satisfy their greed or their addiction to thee thrill of violence.

In 17 chapters, the book offers a variety of stories illustrating the skills and courage of FWC game wardens. Although sometimes the main business is to wait in hiding while anticipating the actions of lawbreakers, most often the stories are brimming with confrontations and high-stakes action.

Among the earlier narratives is the fascinating story of Eastern Airlines Flight #401 as it streaked downward into the Florida Everglades marshlands on Dec. 29, 1972, taking the lives of 101 people. The author tracks the ensuing discovery of the wrecked plane by an airboat-driving young warden, Gray Leonhard, along with his role in the compromised rescue operation. It was Mr. Leonhard’s first experience of such a disaster. His long game warden career included hundreds of search-and-rescue operations in which the FWC assisted other law enforcement and rescue agencies.

There are more airboat chases in the book than airboat b rescue missions. si Whatever the vehicle,ve game wardens de need to foil criminal actions such as deer and turkey poaching, gill netting operations and more. Confrontations with alligators,alli snakes and other dangerous species are also part of a game warden’s work. Alligator skins and snake skins are profitable able commodities, and therether are laws governing ing the harvesting of these money-makers that wardens must enforce.

My favorite chapters include “Kissimmee Marsh Airboat Chase,” “Sky Poachers,” “Gill-netters in the Dark” and “The Critter Catcher.” Readers most likely will have their own favorites.

The perpetrators do not give up easily, as Mr. Lee’s rogues’ gallery of offenders makes clear. They enjoy a very special version of living off the land that sees the web of conservation laws as an infringement on their freedom. Mr. Lee gives his readers many examples of this attitude by recreating conversations between the offenders and the wardens. He has a wonderful knack for capturing speech patterns and other tools of characterization.

That same skill for characterization empowers his portraits of the wardens and investigators whose stories he tells. Hero or villain, Mr. Lee turns his subjects into unforgettable characters.

Because of his long experience in the conservation enforcement business, he is utterly convincing. His observations radiate authenticity, and he effectively conveys his sophisticated knowledge base about the law, the Everglades and other protected habitats, the creatures, the criminal mind and the skill sets of conservation professionals.

Once you get into this book, you won’t be able to put it down.

Readers of Mr. Lee’s new book will also enjoy his earlier “Backcountry Lawman: True Stories from a Florida Game Warden” (2013) from the same publisher.

Mr. Lee lives with his wife, Karen, on 18 acres next to a secluded lake in south Putnam County. In his 30-year career before retiring as an FWC lieutenant, Mr. Lee saw it all. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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