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    Sylvia and Perran live in a historic Cracker house they have restored. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

Real Florida living at Paynes Prairie

I consider myself fortunate to have friends from my graduate student days that still live in Gainesville, Fla. As you can imagine, these longtime friends of mine are all biologists of one type or another and we continue to have many interests in common. Animals and nature are a big part of the package for all of us.

On one recent trip to Gainesville, I drove my major professor Liz Wing from her assisted living residence to visit Sylvia Scudder, Liz’s former lab manager, and her partner Perran Ross at their home on 35 acres adjacent to Paynes Prairie State Park. Two of my other Gainesville friends, Karen Brown and Bill Keeler, came along too.

On our last visit a few years ago, Perran gave Karen a rat snake that he had just captured in their chicken coop. Karen had mentioned that she had a problem with rodents in her garage, and Perran said, “Do you want a snake?” And yes, she did. So, that visit she left with a rat snake in a pillowcase. As Karen this time was reminding Perran of this incident, he said, “Do you want another snake?” It turns out he had just captured another rat snake, and sure enough, he came out with another snake in a pillowcase. Now what are the chances of that! It’s not like he catches snakes every day to give as a door prize to visitors. In fact, they could not recall ever giving anyone else a snake. They usually just release them far away from their chickens.

Their acreage preserves 35 acres of undeveloped Florida, a woods with towering oaks and other hardwoods and an understory of mostly native plants adjacent to Paynes Prairie State Park. They breed and raise champion Catahoula leopard dogs (rockypointcatahoulas.com), and their fenced-in acreage is a great training ground for their dogs to learn the skills of treeing raccoons, baying hogs, and hunting small game. Their dogs are bred for their temperament and working skills – not AKC conformation standards – and have been purchased by ranchers and hunters in Europe, South America, and around the U.S. They have maybe one litter a year from carefully managed pairings and will only consider selling their pups to people who will use them as working dogs, not pets. When not working, these dogs are great animals, happily at home in Sylvia and Perran’s old Cracker-style house and welcoming to visitors.

On this recent visit, Perran and Sylvia showed us around their property. We admired the persimmon and citrus trees they had planted over the years, and Liz was especially pleased to see a fig tree that they had transplanted as a sapling from her old home years ago. We all marveled at their garden overflowing with vegetables including some unique varieties like Seminole squash that produces copious amounts of squashes that last for months after harvest. Here and there, chickens scratched in the dirt, and in a large pen further from the house, a big pig luxuriated.

Much of the wildlife on the property is not visible near the house or when people are around. But, ever the biologists, Sylvia and Perran have installed game cameras to record the action. One particularly fruitful camera is set up near a large tank of freshwater that they put on the edge of their property to help the wildlife in times of drought. And wow, did it work! Sylvia provided me with a number of photos taken at this spot. Coyotes, bobcats, and deer are regular visitors. For a while, a family of sandhill cranes visited and even paddled around in the water. In one amazing photo, two wild turkey gobblers were caught in full display mode while courting two hens. Once, a bear came through too and managed to kill the pig they had at the time. It’s a wild world out there that Sylvia and Perran enjoy to the max.

When we left Sylvia and Perran this time, not only did Karen and Bill have a yellow rat snake in a pillowcase to release in their garage, they also had a stem from a cassava that Karen plans to plant in her own yard. Liz and I had no physical souvenirs from our visit, but lots to talk about on the way back to Liz’s home. And I have another column and photos to share!

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