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Rev. E.Anderson

WRESTLING WITH ALLIGATORS

Robert Green

Whump! A reptilian head reared up two feet from my face!

I figured my assignment would be routine that night in 1991. Some older folks in a trailer park had called Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, worried about a big alligator in a nearby pond. My job as a trapper is to capture and relocate such animals to an area where they won’t be a nuisance.

Night is the best time to find these wary critters. They usually lurk underwater with only their eyes protruding. It’s possible to spot them because in the dark those eyes reflect light like balls of fire. After kissing my wife and three daughters goodnight, I loaded my gear into the pickup: a coil of heavy rope and a roll of electrician’s tape, a miner’s headlamp with waist-mounted battery, and a ‘bang stick’ – a pole rigged to fire a .44-calibre bullet. The stick was in case I had to kill a dangerous animal, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. I firmly believe that God put these creatures, as with all his creation, on earth for a reason.

Believing that we’ve been given responsibility for the earth’s ani­mals, means respecting and taking care of them. I have loved ani­mals all my life, and feel a particular sympathy for alligators. Once killed indiscriminately until they were nearly extinct, alligators are now protected by law. Granted, their looks don’t exactly warm your heart, but they are basically solitary creatures who are afraid of humans unless – and here’s the trouble – people feed them. It’s against the law, but ignorant people will toss them marshmallows, bread, and other snacks. As a result, alligators lose their fear of humans and associate them with food. Sadly, that’s when an animal may turn into a menace and have to be destroyed.

This happened to one unfortunate gator who was befriended by secretaries at an electric company in Palm Bay. The women ate lunch each day at an outdoor picnic table and began sharing their sandwiches with him. They thought it cute to find him waiting every noon. They didn’t think it so cute, however, when he tried to force his way into their building. Now their lunch partner has been turned into expensive pocketbooks. I prefer a live animal any time.

That’s why, when I headed my pickup to Merritt Island that night, I was grateful my quarry wasn’t considered dangerous. I’d be able to transport him alive to an uninhabited area. Such places are becoming scarce in Florida. Alligators are being squeezed out by tourism, shopping centres, golf courses and water pollution.

As I drove on I remembered my father teaching me how animals benefit from one another. Years ago, as we walked around our central Florida farm, he had pointed to a big tree loaded with white egrets.

‘Know why that place is a good place for a rookery son? Because a big gator lives in that water hole beneath it. He helps protect the birds from the racoons, possums and snakes that prey on them. If that gator leaves, the rookery could be in trouble.’

Dad showed me a water-filled wallow. ‘Gator made that for his home,’ he said. ‘Comes a bit drought, other animals depend on it for drinking, and the gator gets some easy meals he wouldn’t get other­wise.’ Dad called a lot of these mutually beneficial arrangements nature’s balance. ‘God’s plan for everything interacting.’ Scientists call this symbiosis.

Around midnight I pulled up to the pond. The gator wasn’t any­where to be seen, but the water backed up into a wild swampy area. I figured he’d be in there. Stashing my rope, tape and bang stick by a palm tree, I crawled into the thicket looking for signs of him. The air was fetid and humid. My headlamp cast crazy shadows as I crept through the cat-tails, my knees banging on twisted tree roots and my hair snagged by thorny bushes. All of a sudden I spot­ted his trail.

As I crouched, deciding where to set a trap, I heard a rustle. Then, whump! A reptilian head reared up two feet from my face!

We both froze. He wasn’t any happier to see me up close and personal than I was to see him. Lifting his seven-foot-long body on clawed feet, he turned and lunged down the trail towards the water. Not wanting to lose him, I dove on to his armour-plated back, groping for a hold around his neck, but my fingers couldn’t meet. His strong, musky smell filled my nostrils. Scaly skin jabbed my stomach as I bear-hugged the writhing creature. He swung his huge head at me, massive jaws snapping with the speed of a rattler. I knew those teeth could tear off my arm in a second.

Now we were into a real wrestling match. I grasped at his jaws. A gator’s powerful jaw-closing muscles can crunch iron-hard tortoise shells like a biscuit. But he uses a weaker set of muscles to open his mouth and if you can get a grip around them and keep his mouth closed, you have a chance.

He bucked and twisted, his ferocious growls and hisses vibrating through me as I clung to him. Finally, with my legs wrapped around him, and his head pressed to the ground, he quietened down. Then, as if gaining strength, the gator exploded, twisting wildly. It was all I could do to keep a grip on him as he lunged and jerked.

Suddenly, a swaying myrtle bush knocked over my headlamp, leaving me in total blackness. Holding the gator’s mouth closed with my right hand, I frantically rummaged with my left in the weeds to retrieve the lamp. Finally I managed to slip it back on and re-plug the cord into the battery pack. I tried to drag his gyrating body inch by inch across jumbled roots and through thick brush to the tree where I had stashed the tape and rope. But a bush hit the headlamp and again sent it flying into the weeds. As if sensing his opportunity, the animal slammed me with his tail, sending me sprawling.

I had a job to do. I needed to get this gator, and stay alive in the process. I grabbed him again and yanked him along. Five feet. Ten feet. My arms ached, my hands throbbed. Twenty-five feet. Half standing, half kneeling, I dug my boots into the earth and dragged the thrashing alligator another seventy-five feet.

With one last heave I pulled the animal to the palm tree. I groped for the tape with my left hand, pulled off a length with my teeth and wrapped it around the alligator’s jaws. Then I roped him to the tree and collapsed on the ground. It was 2.30 a.m., one and a half hours since our battle had begun. He was tired too and spent the night there safely until I went back to collect him in the morning.

I loaded him into the back of my pickup and drove to a secluded area in central Florida. There I eased my friend into knee-deep water where he’d feel safe. After untying him, I removed the tape that bound his jaws and watched him swim into the tea-coloured stream. Like all of us, he deserved the chance to start over again.

I stood surveying the peaceful scene. A snowy egret high-stepped elegantly through the shallows, a pelican swooped past grey-mussed trees, another alligator on a far rock sunned himself like some pre-historic relic, and I remembered God looking at everything that he had made, and saying how good it was. There are those who wrinkle their noses at alligators and ask, ‘Just what good are they?’ Well, to my way of thinking, God’s ‘everything’ includes alligators.

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