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Book Review: Ticks and Politics in South Florida

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Book Review: Ticks and Politics in South Florida: The Fourth Seminole War and the Photographs of Roy Komarek; By Robert L. Crawford, 2015. Printed by Tall Timbers Press, Tallahassee, Florida.

I was delighted to find something new! Or I should say, new material of old photos! This book uncovers 75 year-old photos found in the archives of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Birdsong Nature Center, north of Tallahassee, Florida. Tall Timbers and Birdsong are conservation areas that study longleaf pines and the effects of prescribed burning with the benefits of fire on natural habitats, and have been doing so for almost the past century. I have hiked both areas, and am a member of Birdsong.

If I have a complaint about this book, is that it is too short! I read through in one sitting! 68 pages and 70 photos / figures on the inside. It is a complicated subject, but very interesting!

Back in the 1940s, the Florida cattle industry was devastated by a tick infestation. This was a serious, because the two major agriculture industries in Florida were citrus, and cattle. I will try to make this as simple as I can.

The Department of Agriculture developed a mandatory program where all the cattle in Florida were to be dipped in cattle vats and treated for ticks. A second part, was that they believed that the ticks were spread by the Florida white tail deer, so the solution by the Department of Agriculture was to just shoot the deer. So, deer were being shot by the tens of thousands all over the state, to the point that the species was on the brink of extinction.

As the program progressed, the Dept. of Ag slowly made its way down the state until it reached south Florida, to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. A few years earlier, the Seminoles had restarted cattle herding. The Seminoles were naturally suspicious of anything government, because government attempted to remove the Seminoles from Florida, and nearly succeeded. About 90 percent of the Seminoles were removed or killed during the previous century, and they hadn’t forgotten it.

The Dept. of Ag demanded that the Seminoles comply with this cattle program, and they resisted. When the gov’t wanted to kill all the deer on the Seminole reservation, the Seminoles said, Absolutely Not! This non-compliance is what it means by the Fourth Seminole War in the title of the book.

Enter the Department of Interior, Indian Affairs, which was another branch of the government. They sided with the Seminoles, and told the Dept. of Ag that they could not force the tribe to comply with something that was against their tribal sovereignty, that they had rights as a Native American tribe, and that the government could not just walk in and demand to do whatever they wanted, to the detriment of the tribe.

“The Seminoles insist that their deer are not ticky.” And, this would later prove to be true! Now, it must be understood that the deer are a big part of the Seminole history and culture, and there is even a Deer Clan within the tribe. So, you just don’t go killing off the symbol of a whole clan! Especially not the animal where folklore describes it as saving mankind at one point in the distant past!

Still, the state wanted to force compliance on the Seminoles and kill the deer. A state legislator was even quoted as saying, “Well, we got people down there who would just as soon kill the Seminoles as the deer.” Unfortunately, this was true.

So, the solution was to bring in a neutral party, and find out if ticks were carried by deer on the Seminole reservation. If it could be proven that the deer were not carrying the ticks, then the killing of the deer would not be necessary. Tall Timbers Research station was contacted, because they had previously done research for the Dept. of Ag.

The Audubon Society, which was at Tall Timbers, was brought in because everyone agreed that Audubon was a reputable mediator for the dispute, with Roy Komarek representing Audubon. Roy and his brother Ed Komarek had split their work between Tall Timbers and Birdsong Nature Center, and took on the task. But one thing they brought to the table that was never previously looked at, was a scientific basis for the whole tick eradication program, and the deer killing, known as “deer reduction program.” Roy said that all he wanted to do, was to prove if killing the deer was necessary or not.

Roy Komarek spent one year on Big Cypress researching the tick question, from June 1941 to June 1942. He had a chickee office and residence, and saw life away from the tourist attractions, and the Seminoles as they were rarely seen by people at the time. He collected birds, went through the swamps and prairies, and tried as much as he could to collect ticks. And in the whole year, he found out that the Seminoles were correct, for he only was able to collect a single tick on his clothing. (My own experience down there is the same; in 10 years living down there, I have only heard of one of my co-workers finding a single tick.) Eventually 51 deer were hunted and killed to be examined for ticks, and none were found to be carrying any. The finding led to the end of the cattle tick program. The Seminole won their fight against the government intrusion.

Roy’s work was extremely important to settle the question of the cattle tick program. It also vindicated the Seminoles and made the government leave them alone. It ended the conflict between the two government agencies. Unfortunately Roy was between the warring factions of government. But he proved through scientific evidence that the Seminoles were right. The Seminoles won against the government with the help of Roy.

The photos Roy took are very unique. They are not posed tourist photos, but candid shots. None of the people are identified, but I am sure that Josie Billie is one of the prominent ones, and I could probably figure out some more looking at photos from the same era. One particularly poignant photo shows Josie reclined on a fence with a tired expression. Another looks like Charlie Cypress working on a dugout canoe under a tree. Photos of children playing in ragged trousers. Women under the chickees or by the canal washing clothes. Seminole men dressed in modern clothes on the swamp buggies or doing everyday labor. Seminole cattlemen. A white couple are probably teachers or missionaries on the reservation.

A statement in the book brings home a point that I think is very important. It is written by Aldo Leopold, famous conservationist from the time who is considered the founder of scientific wildlife management. “The region in question contains the last Seminole culture, the last wild eastern cougar, and one of the last groups of pure eastern wild turkey. All of these wild resources would be damaged or obliterated by the extermination of the deer. Each of them is more valuable, to me, than any local cattle industry which might supplant them. Each of them is so rare and valuable that the nation as a whole should have a voice in their disposition; more is involved than the temporary wishes of local citizens.”

And that, is the key point. The Everglades, and Big Cypress, are a unique habitat that are found nowhere else in the world. The Seminoles and Miccosukee people are unique, with a culture that needs to be preserved. The Florida panther, west Indian manatee, Everglades mink, ghost orchid, and numerous other plants and animals that I could name off are unique. They do not need to be supplanted by anything. We do not need any more roads, bike trails, cattle, houses, or oil wells. They are more valuable than anything else that we would bring into their environment. The exact same holds true today, as when Also Leopold said it at that congressional hearing in 1942.

Back cover:
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