By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Two years ago, at a busy Fort Bend County baseball diamond, Little Leaguers swung for the outfield. Runners at second and third weren't the only ones hoping the right fielder might soon be chasing a pop fly into the brush. In an overgrown drainage ditch beyond the base line, a hungry alligator waited to score.
As the alligator emerged from the brambles during the upper innings, sunning itself in plain view of the bleachers, frantic cell phone callers dialed up enough Richmond policemen to take down Godzilla. Pegged by early estimates at eight and a half feet, the alligator quietly slid into a storm drain while nine officers cordoned off a mob of kids holding Louisville Sluggers.
The cops knew calling in more manpower and weaponry would be futile. They radioed Larry Janik, alligator man.
Stout, red-faced and clad in weathered denim, Janik threaded through the gawkers in his GMC Sierra. The truck's dash held rolls of duct tape and six-inch hooks that had snared hundreds of gators. Janik grabbed a five-foot noose-on-a-stick from the pickup bed, slogged in rubber boots up to the mouth of the pipe, and peered in. What he saw surprised even the veteran wrangler. The alligator was more than 11 feet long, big enough to eat him.
The enormity of the reptile had an upside, Janik reasoned: The 600-pound-gator was so fat and stretched that it couldn't spin around in the three-foot-wide drain. Janik could see the tip of its jagged tail through the darkness. He crawled toward it on his hands and knees through a half-foot of puddinglike muck. As he stretched for its neck with the catch pole, the pipe vibrated with a rumbling hiss. The alligator lifted its head, slyly glared through a transparent eyelid and spun -- inches from Janik's face -- charging with open jaws.
Janik crab-dashed for the outside, hurling himself ten feet back in a mad effort to escape a predator that can sprint faster than a racehorse. He heard teeth gnashing behind him, but also claws spinning for traction like bogged radials. He tumbled out of the pipe unscathed.
Clearly the alligator was too fierce to be taken alive. Janik returned to the pipe cradling a .22 Magnum and, as sports moms and middle schoolers strained to hear, shot the beast twice in the head.
All over southeast Texas, alligators are back. They're in soccer fields and parking lots, garages and swimming pools, oil refineries and prison yards; they're in mobile homes, day care centers and laundry rooms; they're under the porch, on the tarmac of the airport and inside the employees' dedicated smoking area; they're probably at this moment a mile from where you're reading this. Years of protection under the Endangered Species Act have helped alligators reclaim local marshland, even if it becomes putting green. They'll settle in a pinch for the 17th-hole water hazard.
In 2004, clashes in Texas between alligators and humans reached an all-time high. The state logged 737 alligator nuisance complaints, nearly three times more than in 2002. (See "Perp Walk," at the end of this article, for a police log and other related stories.) The largest number came from the region's fastest-growing county, Fort Bend, where the human population has doubled since 1990, spilling into subdivisions with such names as River Forest and Grand Lakes. In this new suburban frontier, keeping people and their pets atop the food chain is a 100-hour-a-week job, Janik notes. "It don't take long for Fluffy, that $500 poodle, to go out in the yard, and she's an hors d'oeuvre."
Janik takes no salary for his potentially life-saving work; once a game warden deems an alligator a nuisance, Janik captures it and pays the state for the right to sell its hide and meat at a profit. The danger of the vocation doesn't bother him, he says. "I just tell my wife, 'If I ever get ate, you'll be a rich woman.' "
In fact, Janik is more worried that his livelihood will be gobbled up by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Last month, the commissioners unanimously voted to ease alligator hunting restrictions in most of the state. Although they designated 22 counties as "core alligator habitat," protecting them from the laxer restrictions, they conspicuously left out the alligator- and subdivision-packed counties of Montgomery and Fort Bend. Gator control in these and 100 other counties soon will be left to any soccer mom, rent-a-cop or weekend warrior with a gun and a hunting permit. The clash between reptilians and suburbanites has finally escalated into a full-blown turf war.
James Sutherlin, a project leader for the state's upper coast wetlands, hopes the new hunt will be so popular that it will cut down on the workload of the cash-strapped Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "This will give the small landowner in those areas that have an alligator the option to take that alligator in the spring, in lieu of us having to deal with it as an individual issue -- the Ôbad dog alligator,' " he says. "And hopefully that will reduce the amount of staff time that we have invested in nuisance control."