PBS Nature filmmaker Mark Emery discusses Wild Florida

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Talking about the environment can be complicated, in particular the threats facing the Earth. Climate change can often suck the air out of discussion with its site forecasts and the passion of ignites between advocates and deniers. But there are many more ways human activity is endangering the planet’s inhabitants. Nature: Wild Florida (PBS, premiers on Feb 12 at 8pm EST) looks the Sunshine State as a microcosm for the various threats. Filmmaker, Mark Emery, discussed the project with SCINQ.

What was it that first interested you in doing a film about Florida and the environmental challenges facing the state?

I grew up here and have worked on wildlife films for 30 plus years. Many locations have changed in that time and so many more are slated for development. I am not naïve enough to think a film will change that; I just wanted it cataloged, a small window of what is here at this time and how incredible it is.

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Since much of the Key deer’s natural habitat was destroyed by Hurricane Irma, some deer have moved into urban areas. Credit: © BBC

What was your primary concerns while in pre-production? (In terms of shooting and also narrative.)

Rowan Crawford was the producer of the film, and I worked with her to lay out safety issues and timings for where and when wildlife would be doing what we wanted to film.

Florida boasts an unbelievable amount of biodiversity. How did you choose which animals to focus on?

That was Rowan’s call. Many of these species are iconic in our minds and we all wanted them covered. You are right there are so many species that we could have filmed but we chose animals that told the story of the area they were in i.e. Key deer in the Keys, Pythons in the Everglades, Alligators and Manatees in clear springs, north Florida’s controlled burns, Indigo snakes, Gopher Tortoises and sand hill springs and unusual forests. It gives the film a bit more continuity that way as well.

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Florida manatees head inland to Florida’s warm springs during the winter months. Credit: Jeff Stamer/© Shutterstock

An overriding theme in the film pertains to the competition between humans and animals for space. Can you discuss what is going on in Florida?

900 people a day are moving to Florida as taxes increase in many Northern states and winter costs drive folks south. Water issues are sure to follow at some point. Connected habitat often decreases so that long ranging larger animals like bear, deer and panthers can be affected and become more vulnerable to being hit on highways.

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In the Everglades, there are an estimated 100,000 Burmese pythons, descended from abandoned exotic pets. These invasive reptiles prey on all wetland animals from deer to alligators. Credit: © Harriet Lawrence

One of the issues you focus on is the effects of invasive species — in this case pythons — on the environment. Can you discuss the python hunting scene?

As a young man, I worked at Ross Allens Reptile Institute. The Institute had one of the largest Reptile collections. So we had pythons, boas, and anacondas as part of this extensive collection. These snakes are remarkable at hiding, it would seem simple to find a fifteen foot snake, but if they are in water that is crowded with vegetation often with only their nares or nostrils showing you will never see them. Global snake infestations are pretty frightening in their overall effect.

Guam has a similar infestation that is more long term. Over 2 million snakes are now on the island and the birds and small animals are virtually gone. We went at night with a husband and wife team that had adapted their truck for python hunting. They certainly can catch snakes. While I was filming I had a nice python slither between my legs that Donna Kalil quickly caught and put away. This is only a bandaid, unfortunately, for a much larger wound that I can’t see an easy solution to.

Another memorable scene documents how humans are using controlled fires to counteract the environmental damage their presence has inflicted. How does it work?

Controlled burns have been used in Florida for many years to control ticks and other parasites as well as facilitate rejuvenation of all plant life. Lightning has done this for years but natural fires can often burn out of control for days. Controlled burns can be used to target certain areas by burning plants that compete with species like longleaf pine and other native species that used to dominate our Florida forests. Sand pines, another native species, only reproduces well by fire.

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Forest fires may look disastrous, but they help Longleaf Pine trees regenerate and survive. The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Florida. Credit: © Jack Johnston

What was it like shooting in the Everglades? Challenges?

The Everglades is massive so one of the problems is just where to be at the right time. Rowan did her homework and we were able to access the places where alligators would be mating and where we could find aggregations of birds. The difficulty with filming some species like reptiles in the glades is that they will sit for hours and then very suddenly display behaviors we needed to capture. We were able to work with Alex Tigertail, a Miccosukee airboat captain. His tribe has 60,000 contiguous acres next to the Everglades park. Alex was great about putting us right on areas that were full of alligators.

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What was your most memorable experience while working on the film?

We had a great crew and that is always a big part of any shoot. For me filming alligators and manatee underwater at Silver Springs is always a treat, and spending time with the Key deer was sweet.

What did you learn by doing this film?

We have a great state for wildlife! I knew that already but I was unaware of many of the folks trying to save it and the extensive nature of their efforts.

Follow PBS Nature on Twitter @PBSNature

COVER IMAGE INFO: Alligators breed during spring time in the Everglades. To attract a mate, males vibrate their larynx to make loud, bellowing calls that can travel over a mile. Credit: Susan Schmitz/© Shutterstock

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