By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
Kirsten Hines is on a mission to make wildlife conservation and education more accessible. Armed with her camera and cellphone for jotting down field notes and using her background as a biologist to guide her, Hines spent the better part of three years patiently tracking, documenting and photographing 150 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that call Florida home for her new book “Wild Florida: An Animal Odyssey.”
Unlike a typical academic biology book, however, Hines intertwines personal narrative, creative writing, natural history and wildlife photography to bring readers into the field with her, as if they are traipsing in the woods beside her to locate a salamander, fox or even a wild horse.
“I shifted into hands on conservation work because I wanted to do something a little more creative, and I didn’t like the academic writing or textbook style writing that is expected from a biologist,” Hines explained. “My goal has always been to share my passion for nature and to hopefully help people realize how important Florida’s ecosystem is and the importance of coexisting with nature.”
While embarking on her quest to document both native and non-native species, Hines intricately unveils the abundant biodiversity of Florida, including the high number of endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world. She sheds light on the perils that animals face due to human activities, including land development and climate change—emphasizing the potential for positive change through human intervention to safeguard at-risk species.
“Florida is incredibly biodiverse because of its climate and history,” Hines said. “The Panhandle has always been connected to temperate North America and still has a direct connection to the Appalachian Mountains through the Apalachicola River, so it’s a hotspot for temperate biodiversity with salamanders you can’t find anywhere else in Florida. In Central Florida, we have scrub habitat and dry prairie, then you have South Florida with its tropical biodiversity. This habitat makes for a unique mix of temperate, tropical and endemic species that makes Florida so special.”
Photographing 150 species is no easy feat though. Hines taps into her background as a biologist, conservationist and environmental educator to help her locate, track and patiently wait for animals in their natural habitat as well as non-native species in their adapted habitats. Her understanding of animal behavior is a key asset in capturing the perfect shot with the perfect timing.
“I used to be a very opportunistic photographer, capturing photos on a walk in the woods, very serendipitous, but I had to learn a new level of patience and almost got meditative about it for this project,” she explained. “I do a lot of reading of signs and digging in the literature to understand habitats and behavior to help me know where to look. I also have a lot of friends who are interested in natural history that gave me some good advice as I made my way through my list of target species.”
At certain junctures throughout the project, characterized by long hours away from home and numerous field expeditions without encountering a target species, Hines contemplated giving up. However, unexpected encounters with a legless lizard, an Everglades mink, or other unanticipated species would rejuvenate her spirits. In fact, the experience was so impactful she ended up rewriting the entire book after finishing her photographic odyssey.
“As soon as I got the contract, I started writing the book,” Hines explained. “But by the time I finished taking all the photos, I ended up just deleting everything that I had written so far, and I started all over. It was partly because I had this different and deeper understanding of Florida, but it was also because I just wanted people to come out in the woods with me, which is how I tried to write it.”
Reading “Wild Florida” is akin to perusing the intimate field notes of a biologist. On one page, Hines meticulously chronicles the history of red foxes in Florida, the invasive spread of Burmese pythons or the overhunting of American crocodiles. On another page, her narrative shifts, and readers can almost feel her heart pounding in the woods during a close encounter with a wild stallion. Each entry serves as a didactic guide, skillfully imparting knowledge to readers about the habitat, animal behavior, historical context or the consequences of human activity on key species.
Despite the wealth of stories and images contained within the book, some species proved more elusive to track down than others. Among the most challenging for Hines to document is a species abundant in Northwest Florida: the Florida black bear. Although often taken for granted as they freely roam through yards in neighboring parts of Santa Rosa County, capturing them on camera required weeks of patient waiting.
“I spent so much time trying to find bears that I started to take it personally,” Hines said. “Everyone told me, ‘Just go to Ocala National Forest, they’re everywhere.’ But it was a comedy of errors. Like I would spend 10 days at a woman’s house waiting in her backyard only for the bears to show up the day I left. But when I finally got the bears, it was boom, they’re having sex right in front of me. It was so rewarding and adrenaline shaking, like I couldn’t believe my luck.”
When photographing any animal, especially one that may be considered dangerous, Hines always gives them a wide berth and pays close attention to any signs of discomfort or uneasiness and backs off when necessary.
“My attitude with all animals is that they’re in charge—even if it’s something that can’t hurt me, I don’t want to hurt it either,” Hines said. “But the truth is that in Florida, even our panthers and crocodiles, they’re really timid and shy. They’ve been over hunted for a long time, and they’re quite scared of humans. When photographing the panthers, I also used my Jeep as a blind, so the animal doesn’t see you as prey until you leave the vehicle. I felt safe even with all my windows down.”
Similar to her approach with the bears, Hines doesn’t merely photograph animals in their natural habitat; she captures them in human spaces—backyards, zoos, cemeteries, parks and even outside airports. Through her lens, she advocates for a narrative of coexistence with wildlife. Hines extends an invitation to not just observe but actively participate in the conservation of Florida’s natural treasures. With a keen eye on solutions, she highlights the simple steps everyday Floridians can take to protect their state’s animals.
“Climate change is kind of hard to conceptualize because it’s affecting the ecosystem in so many different ways,” Hines said. “The biggest threat to Florida is habitat loss due to development, and I think having reserves allows us to be more resilient to that. There are also opportunities to develop smarter, including water treatment for marshes. By incorporating these areas into our water treatment process, like making manmade marshes, we’re not only using nature to clean our water, but we’re providing habitat for animals within urban areas and places for people to improve their mental wellbeing and exercise.”
Throughout “Wild Florida,” Hines provides success stories of human intervention and incorporates small ways for the average person to make changes, like adding native plants to your garden, wearing reef-friendly sunscreen and voting for environmentally focused and climate mindful political leaders.
“Even the smallest changes can ultimately have a very big impact,” Hines said. “Even areas that seem really remote to us still have human influence, so just being aware of what our impact is on nature is important. It’s all interconnected, and there is no one place that is just wildlife or just for people, and I hope my book shows that.”
‘WILD FLORIDA’ BOOK EVENT
WHAT: A book talk and signing with author and photographer Kirsten Hines WHEN: 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20
WHERE: Barnes & Noble, 1200 Airport Blvd.