It could be the twang of an ancient danger signal going off in the stomach or it could be no more than a paranoid hangover from Tarzan movies, but the sight of an alligator oozing down a mud-bank into dark water invariably makes one think: that big lizard is looking for lunch, and I'm the fattest thing he sees. In southern Louisiana, and in parts of Florida, alligators are scaring the dickens out of golfers and anglers, dining on poodles and other small furry animals and generally slithering around in such great numbers that property owners, trappers, even state fish and game people, feel the time has come to modify the 'gators' protected status under the Endangered Species Act in some areas and thin out the herd, as it were.
The heavy, snoring bellow of a bull alligator in the spring was once the characteristic sound of the Louisiana marshes. When an alligator talked, only another alligator would dare answer. Frogs and foxes and crickets became very quiet, and even humans hushed up and reached for weapons. Shortly after the Civil War a traveler into southern Louisiana wrote that alligators were so thick along the bayou banks that he could have walked on them all day, if he lacked sanity. He said the red reflections of their eyes surrounded the campfire at night, their bellowing robbed him of sleep and he despaired of ever being able to raise cattle in the wetlands.
But in time levees were built and marshes drained to make room for livestock. Alligators began to be hunted so rapaciously for their hides—and sometimes for their meat, which is firm, white and lean and tastes something like chicken or pork when fried or barbecued—that the giant reptiles started to disappear. By the late 1950s scarcely enough alligators had survived in Louisiana to make shoes and suitcases for politicians. Under the urging of its Wild Life and Fisheries Commission, Louisiana passed the first state law protecting alligators and was the first state to propose that killing them be in violation of federal law. But by 1972, the alligator population had so increased that despite opposition from the National Audubon Society and other conservation groups, Louisiana held alligator hunting seasons of a few weeks in both that year and in 1973. The seasons were regulated by licenses and limits.
With the passage of the new federal Endangered Species Act, Louisiana is now forbidden to hold another alligator season. The irony is that Louisiana is again swarming with alligators, and there's not much to do about it except trap them and shuffle them off to game preserves where the 'gators feast on minks, nutria, birds and almost anything else they can gobble up. Or else offer to give the 'gators away to folks who don't have any. In 1973 the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission offered to donate 2,000 alligators to the National Audubon Society—an offer that a society spokesman regarded as a possible effort to needle the conservationists. The Audubon Society, however, went along with the gag and in 1973-74 helped to transfer some 5,000 Louisiana alligators to other states.
"Those people up there in Connecticut and Massachusetts and Vermont tell us we ought to leave alligators alone, but they don't understand our problem," says Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Assistant Director Dick Yancey. "Years ago we informed the marsh owners and fur trappers we'd reopen the seasons on alligators as soon as we could get the 'gator population built back up. Well, now southwestern Louisiana is saturated with alligators, and the rest of the state has got more than it needs. There's a lot of drainage going on in the marshes. Landowners put in levees and pump out the water, and it's disastrous for wildlife. If they could harvest some of their alligators and sell them for money, it would be an incentive to maintain the wetlands instead of pumping them out for cattle. Alligators feed real heavily on nutria and muskrats, which are a prime asset of trappers and landowners. So now alligators are viewed as a liability. Traditionally when a landowner sees a liability, he takes it off, law or no law."
The Endangered Species Act of December 1973 gave the Department of Interior at least temporary authority over endangered wildlife, both migratory and resident. Until then, the states had jurisdiction over their own resident wildlife, which is how Louisiana could get away with alligator seasons. Now Louisiana has asked Interior to change the endangered status of the alligator in parts of the state. Interior is mulling it over. Dr. Howard Campbell of the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory in Gainesville, Fla. is writing a status report, due shortly. Once the report is in, action wouldn't be taken for at least 60 days—in other words, March at best. "Our landowners have a wait-and-see attitude, but I don't know how long they'll wait," says Yancey. "If the alligator remains a sacred cow, it's got no future."
Flying over the marshes of southwestern Louisiana in a light plane, one can look down and see thousands of alligators (the estimated 'gator population for that area is close to 300,000). They are ghastly white in the afternoon sun. "They're covered all over with mud from digging," says Al Ensminger, chief of the Refuge Division of Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries. "They crawl up in the sun, and the mud dries and turns 'em white. They're denning now, going into hibernation until March. We sure do need to crop out a few of 'em. A 10-foot alligator has got a brain about as big as your thumb. No memory bank. It's all instinct. Alligators are pretty shy compared to crocodiles, but our whole coast is becoming scattered with fishing camps and it's only a matter of time until a big 'gator grabs hold of a kid."
Although it had never before been completely documented that an alligator and a human had met in an encounter fatal to other than the alligator, one killed a 16-year-old girl in Florida in August 1973. While swimming in a lake the girl was seized by a 500-pound alligator that biologists believe had lost its natural fear of man from having been given handouts. "The big problem in Florida is that the prime alligator habitat is in the central lakes region," says Ensminger. "But rich people are building resort and retirement homes on those limestone lakes and are throwing the 'gators off. The 'gator is a product of the land. He loves the water but he needs a bank to sun on. So he's dispossessed. An old lady from Kansas might think he's cute for a while and toss him some chicken necks, but when he loses his fear and eats her cocker spaniel, the 'gator is no longer welcome. They used to just move the 'gators to another lake, but now the other lakes are also resorts. So the 'gators are moved to the Everglades. But the Glades are going dry. It's a burning dilemma. The game department tries to placate the resort and retirement people by getting rid of the alligators. But at the same time the resort and retirement people are against hunting and killing."
There has long been a tale that alligators thrive in the sewers of New York City. This is a myth. For one, it is too cold down there in the winter. For another, the flow is so strong the 'gators would be swept into the rivers or into a sewage treatment plant. Moreover, the animals that supposedly have found their way into the sewers by being flushed down toilets are caymans from South America, brought to the U.S., sold as "baby alligators" and usually purchased by tourists as souvenirs of Florida or mailed to friends as a one-sided joke. A cayman has a nasty temper and can grow to be about six feet long. But there are for a fact alligators in the sewers and drainage canals of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and in ponds and lagoons of places like New Orleans' City Park, where five golf courses wind through the waterways.
The person most intimately involved with City Park alligators is Dutch Fenasci, who has made a living for 51 years diving in its waters for lost golf balls. Fenasci's technique is to go out early in the morning with an associate as a "catcher" and plunge into the dirty water of the lagoon to grope with his hands and toes for golf balls. On an ordinary day Fenasci finds about 400 balls, of which about one-third are discarded as useless. The rest are sold back to the City Park golf shop for from 10¢ to 25¢ each. Dutch has raised eight children on his earnings from lost golf balls, and he has two color TV sets in his apartment behind the Golden Filly Beauty Salon a few blocks from City Park. As one might imagine, Dutch has encountered a great number of alligators, not to mention water moccasins, face to face. He has seen the alligator population of City Park wax and wane and wax again, and he has watched golfers flee from mere seven-footers ambling across the fairways, but Dutch has never been bitten and has never even felt seriously menaced.
"A 'gator won't disturb a human being unless it's a mama 'gator or one that's been hurt," Dutch says. "Of course, you better stay away from 'em in mating season, and you shouldn't step on one. There's 40 or 50 'gators in the City Park lagoon, and two of 'em are more than 12 feet long. But I'd say if a 'gator was going to attack a human, somewhere along the line I'd have got attacked. I've been hit by spawning trout, but the 'gators and snakes have left me alone."
Dutch Fenasci may not be confronted by alligators much longer. There is a plan to remove them from City Park this spring and cart them off to a preserve. One of the men involved in that project is Louis Pellerin of the Baton Rouge office of the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission. Pellerin is described by Dick Yancey as a champion alligator catcher who handles hundreds of complaints a year from people who discover alligators on their lawns and tennis courts and in their swimming pools. Recently Pellerin picked up an eight-footer that was blocking traffic near the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge and removed another eight alligators from the grounds of a public school.
"Alligators come in after a big storm and high water," Pellerin says. "That's when they get all over the place. People try to make pets out of 'em when the 'gators are little. One boy slept with a 'gator until it got to be about four feet long and then decided he didn't trust the 'gator any more. I've been called out when children were bitten trying to pick 'gators up. I've had to pry the 'gators' jaws open with a tire tool. A man from LSU waded in a pond there, and a 'gator bit him on the leg. A man working for us was spraying hyacinths in a pond and got pulled out of the boat by a female 'gator whose nest he had disturbed. His partner knocked the 'gator on the head with a hammer. In one subdivision they dug canals in a low area, and now they've got 300 to 500 'gators in among their houses."
Many people might wonder why alligators should be protected. Why not wipe out the ugly bigmouths once and for all? The fact is, alligators do a tremendous amount of good for other wildlife. As deer make trails through the woods, alligators make trails across the swamps, connecting streams and ponds so that other creatures can migrate or escape from droughts. Alligators dig dens under the water that become refuges for fish, snakes and turtles in dry periods and that furnish drinking water for birds and other animals. Alligators eat possums and coons that are rambling along to eat birds. An alligator often kills more than it can eat, which for a grown 400-pounder is at least 40 pounds of grub a week, leaving the scraps for wee creatures. The alligator is the plow of the wetlands, rooting up mud and nutrients that feed young plants.
But an alligator's life is not all marsh-mallows (a favorite snack) and raw duckling, even leaving out the danger people represent. Fish, snakes, turtles, frogs and birds eat baby alligators and alligator eggs if they can be found, and bears, coons, otters, skunks and foxes will also nibble upon somewhat larger 'gators. To be frank, an alligator will eat another alligator if food is scarce or the pond too crowded. After a gestation period of about two months, a female alligator may lay about 50 eggs, and she counts herself a lucky mama if half a dozen reach maturity. With a minimum of other than natural swamp-world harassment, that egg-to-brute ratio would produce enough alligators to pave America.
Alligator farms are doing very well. Like cattle, pigs, catfish and pine trees, alligators are being raised as a commercial resource. A five-foot alligator worth about $75 on the market can be grown for about $10 in a couple of years. The $75 figure is really pretty low. Figure the meat is worth $1 per pound, the carcass 35¢ a pound for crab bait, the skull $5 as an ornament and the hide $14 to $I5 per foot. To grow sizable alligators, you have to keep them in ponds where they can't wander off and you have to feed them' year-round, but it is legal to sell them at any time to buyers who show up from Italy, France, Japan, England, Germany or wherever. One farm outside Baton Rouge has 6,000 alligators.
At those prices there will always be poaching. Nightlighters cruise the swamps extinguishing the red eyes, but it's a year in jail and up to a $10,000 fine if they're caught. Still, last fall alligator hides were seized in a refrigerator truck belonging to a public official in New Orleans, and hides from Louisiana were grabbed in a raid in Newark, N.J. "We're making cases on poachers right and left," says Pellerin. "They use Citizens Band radios and talk in code, but we've got Citizens Band radios and we break their codes. When we catch poachers, you better believe we make cases."
A case may be made as well for the selective harvesting of alligators before they start doing laps in swimming pools or hitching rides in golf carts.