By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
Under the new rules, anyone with a valid hunting license will be allowed to shoot one alligator per year on private land. Parks officials will no longer perform careful population surveys of land where the owners wish to hunt alligators, or limit the hunt to a 20-day period in September. Instead, alligators outside the core counties will be removed without limit, from the beginning of May to the end of June -- a sensitive time. "You will be getting alligators in their nests during courtship," says Monique Slaughter, a state wildlife technician. "You will be taking females that would not be able to be there to protect their eggs or keep predators from the nest in the mating season." The only cap on the hunt will come from the worldwide Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which issues tags that must be affixed to all alligator skins.
Some alligator biologists who collaborate with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department privately predict the new hunting rule could eradicate mature alligators in many areas, and they vehemently oppose the measure. "I think it's crazy," one biologist says.
Sutherlin disagrees. "Since we don't feel like there is a protection issue from an endangered- or threatened-species standpoint in Texas," he says, "we feel like we can liberalize the rules."
Until now, at least, the most vicious rule governing alligator encounters in Texas has been the law of nature.
On a summer afternoon in 2004, Clara Williams watched from her kitchen in Liberty County as a six-foot alligator sunned itself near her backyard fish pond, and a large stray dog trotted up to it and inquisitively barked. "I don't think the dog realized what it was," Williams says. The alligator hissed and charged. The dog backpedaled to the edge of the pond, hesitated to jump in and met a wall of teeth. It was dragged underwater in a single fluid slither, disappearing as a smaller, three-foot alligator followed.
Williams had seen the same thing happen before. "I don't even own a dog," she says. "Wouldn't have a dog, can't have nothing like that."
Although most people would never know it, clashes between crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles) and canines in the Houston area occur regularly. Alligator nuisance reports filed with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department over the past two years report seven incidents, none of which were publicized -- often for good reason. One Centex Homes employee explains why she wouldn't provide the Houston Press with more information about how someone's four-legged friend at the Northwood Pines subdivision became reptile food. "We really don't want our name out there," she says, "because it sounds bad to say, 'A dog was eaten by an alligator at Centex Homes.' "
It also sounds bad to counsel forgiveness for the gator that ate the beloved family pooch. Even when the dogs lose, they're winning support for legalizing revenge. After an alligator in a Madison County stock pond gulped down Sam, a six-year-old rat terrier, George Phelps, a gun collector, avenged his dog's death with a rifle, which was illegal (but soon won't be).
Besting pit bulls by more than a factor of ten, alligators can snap their mouths shut with 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, the same pressure used to liquefy oxygen in a scuba tank. They often grab hold of a victim and then spin their bodies in a "death roll" executed to rip off body parts. If they happen to lose one of their 80 teeth in the tussle, they will quickly grow another one. In the spring and summer, female alligators will attack anything that comes within a few yards of their nests.
Still, with the exception of dog-eating, alligators have been surprisingly well behaved in Texas, at least recently. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enjoys pointing out that the animals have never gravely injured a human in the state, which has been true, perhaps, since 1836. An account recorded days before the Battle of San Jacinto by Dilue Harris, an early settler of what would become Harris County, recalled one man's attempt to ford a local stream teeming with basilisks:
(Mr. King) swam the bayou to bring back the horses. He had gotten nearly across with them, when a large alligator appeared. Mrs. King first saw it above the water and screamed. The alligator struck her husband with its tail and he went under water. There were several men present and they fired their guns at the animal, but it did no good. It was not in their power to rescue Mr. King.
The quest for revenge against the man-eater was one of the first hunts in a 150-year Texas alligator massacre. Locals attracted the beast with a freshly slaughtered cow and shot it. Ranchers later shot alligators to protect their calves; gentlemen riding ferry boats up Buffalo Bayou shot them simply to amuse themselves. By the 1930s, hunting and habitat loss had driven the population into severe decline in South Texas and across the United States. Alligators were finally listed as an endangered species in 1967 and hunting was banned.
For decades, the alligators lay low. Crocodilians grow slowly; a six-year-old alligator might be only four feet long. Limited hunting resumed in 1984 and increased three years later after alligators were removed from the Endangered Species List. Yet the take remained conservative. Roughly 2,000 wild alligators were harvested last year in Texas, only a fraction of a population that has grown to be anywhere from 250,000 to a half-million.