By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Only now are alligators finally slithering (often abruptly) back into the South Texan consciousness.
On a dark night in November 2004, for example, 17-year-old Michael Baker and his mom walked into their house in Katy, turned on the light in the kitchen and noticed that their dog was pacing back and forth and barking. Baker looked down and saw a four-foot alligator under the kitchen table. "I never would have expected anything like that," he says. His best guess is that the alligator had squeezed, incredibly tightly, through the house's doggie door.
By the time spring and summer rolled around last year, alligators in Fort Bend County were infiltrating every pipe, pond and sweat pore. In April, an alligator broke into the grounds of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Central Unit in Sugar Land, where wardens reported that it was preventing the presumably not-so-tough inmates from working around the prison lake. In the Brazos Lakes subdivision, a ten-year-old spent nearly an hour landing a four-foot alligator on a kiddie fishing rod. In the subsequent months, a worker at CenterPoint Energy's power plant discovered a six-foot alligator in a coal-handling tunnel; Theresa, of Woodlake Estates in Katy, reported a five-foot alligator in the water ski lake; and Troy found a seven-foot alligator in his Needville barn.
In the Fort Bend County subdivision of Kelliwood Greens, Sandi Braaten was standing on Crystal Greens Drive watching her kids play when she noticed a crowd gathering across the street. She walked over and saw a five-foot alligator on a front porch. A few minutes later, her neighbor Gene Liner showed up with a homemade lasso. To the chagrin of his wife, he chased the alligator across lawns and through bushes for the better part of an hour until he lassoed its mouth. He then threw a blanket over it, sat on it and, Braaten recalls, "He actually wrassled it."
When last year's alligator activity finally wound down, Fort Bend County game warden Barry Eversole had spent 95 percent of his time responding to gator nuisance complaints. Almost half of the calls came from suburbanites who'd found something like a harmless two-footer in a creek. Eversole endures these cries of wolf with a silent contempt. "Some of those people, you've really got to bite your tongue," he says, though he adds that their behavior is nothing extraordinary. "It's our culture these days."
Many people who work with alligators in Texas feel the state's anti-alligator culture needs to be changed before its hunting laws. Speaking before the Parks and Wildlife Commission in Austin, Sarah Cerrone, the founder and director of Texas Gatorfest, the yearly alligator festival and hunting competition in Anahuac, was apoplectic. "Everyone who I have spoken with -- from alligator hunters and farmers to landowners and wildlife biologists -- agrees that the changes being proposedÉwould have grave consequences on the alligator population in Texas," she said.
Back in Anahuac a few days later, Cerrone stepped out of her office, which was full of stuffed alligator toys, alligator puppets, porcelain alligators and real-life alligator skulls, and climbed into her Jeep, where the dash was Velcroed with an alligator and the trunk carried two alligator heads. "Needless to say, that's what everybody gives me," she said. The South Texas guru of all things gator had offered to lead a tour of the thriving alligator populations and habitat that, in non-core counties, she thinks the new rule will destroy.
Cerrone drove into the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and down a gravel road along a bayou, where large alligators sunbathed almost as densely as Galveston beach bums. These larger alligators will doubtless be targeted disproportionately by hunters, most of whom shoot for trophies. An internal Texas Parks and Wildlife memo obtained by the Houston Press reported that the average size of an alligator taken in hunts on private lands is more than seven feet. That alarms wildlife biologists such as K.J. Lodrigue of Texas A&M. "The natural ecosystem is going to suffer because of it," he says.
By way of example, Cerrone stopped her Jeep next to a leery, eight-foot gator sunning itself atop a patch of smooth cord grass. Carpetlike swaths of this wispy plant once clung to most of the upper Texas coast, preventing soil from washing into bays, streams and stock ponds. Today, most of it has been chomped up by nutria, a beaver-sized invasive rodent species from South America that, lacking predators, has multiplied explosively. But not here in Anahuac. The large alligators gobble them up, along with many of the excess snakes and raccoons that would otherwise rob the nests of water birds. Indeed, alligators act as a "keystone species"; they were probably one reason why Cerrone spooked up a great blue heron just around the bend.
"This is what the upper coast of Texas should look like," she said.
To get a closer view of alligator habitat, Cerrone stopped next just outside town at Porter's Processing and Gator Farm, the largest alligator dealer in the state. Mark Porter cautiously led the way though a fence to a pond, where the bigger alligators had dug holes 15 feet into the muddy banks. These "gator holes" provide a crucial source of water in the wild to turtles, frogs and other marsh species during droughts.