By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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By Camilo Smith
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Porter, a portly Cajun from Port Arthur, is not the kind of guy to get sentimental about gators. Back in a warehouse, he opened a walk-in cooler and dragged out a flapping, eight-foot beast that had been brought in that night by a nuisance hunter. "Grab ahold of the head," he told a worker. "I'm gonna sex it to see if I'm turning him loose or keeping him." As the gator hissed like the steam engine on a devil train, Porter lifted its tail and stuck his finger in an orifice. "It doesn't like that," Cerrone observed. Porter was frowning: "Male, I don't need no males. He's still too young to breed. That would be a damn good female."
That meant Porter would be shooting it in the head.
Even though Porter makes his living by treating alligators as commodities, he's staunchly opposed to the new hunting rule, as is every other alligator tradesman who officially weighed in on the measure. "It sucks," Porter says bluntly. A flood of trophy alligators brought in by amateur hunters for processing might help his business in the short term, but in the long term, he's afraid larger alligators, which fetch the most money for skins, will disappear from many counties. "I want my grandchildren to be able to see and do everything I've done," he says.
Of course, plenty of other people are worried about their grandchildren being eaten, losing fingers or simply being in the proximity of anything slithery. They will dial 911 at the first whiff of reptile. According to the internal Parks and Wildlife memo, 50 percent of alligator nuisance complaints were called in on alligators less than six feet long. Given the preference of private hunters for larger, trophy animals, this spells major problems for the department's new policy, even according to some of its own researchers. "[I]t is obvious that a public sport hunt will not target nuisance American alligators," the memo concluded.
In the short term, the program might actually be counterproductive. Large alligators can be merciless cannibals; they will devour dozens of smaller competitors that may later challenge them for mates or food (or also wander into a swimming pool). "So by hunting the larger alligators, we are in a way making the alligator nuisance problems worse," Lodrigue says. Only after decades of consistently eliminating large alligators of breeding age would the population eventually collapse.
Cerrone worries about the precedent the hunting policy sets for her own backyard. Parks and Wildlife officials admit Fort Bend, Montgomery and Harris counties weren't protected from the hunt simply because they're urbanizing. Cerrone's rural Chambers County is also being colonized by suburbanites. "Five years from now," she wonders, "are they going to say Chambers County is not core habitat?"
Instead of attacking urban alligators with guns, Cerrone suggests the department try to promote the animals. After all, they're highly adaptable. With a lineage that traces back 225 million years to the archosaurs, the precursors of the dinosaurs, alligators are among the oldest creatures on earth. A large alligator can comfortably live four days on a Happy Meal burger and eat plenty of other things that would seem much more insalubrious. In a recent study of the contents of alligator stomachs on the Texas coast, Lodrigue found broken Coors, Miller and Budweiser bottles and, in one case, a perfectly shiny brass faucet. "Trash will cut the stomachs all to shreds," he says, "but normally that's not a problem for the alligator, because they are so tough."
Promoting suburban alligators might be easier if Texas did more to teach people how to live with them. The Parks and Wildlife Department works with Gatorfest each year, faxes press releases, sends its biologists on speaking engagements and offers an educational packet to schools that request one. Yet Parks and Wildlife workers concede that these efforts miss many people. In school districts where alligators are common, Cerrone wants to see alligator education become a standard part of the curriculum.
Floridians seem to encounter as many urban alligators as they do pigeons, and accept run-ins with the beasts as a fact of subtropical life. Since 1948, 20 people have been chomped to death in the state -- three of them this month. Yovy Suarez Jimenez, 28, was jogging in the South Florida city of Sunrise on May 12 when a ten-foot alligator apparently grabbed her, dragged her into a canal and ripped off both her arms. Yet long after urban alligator attacks had begun making the news, a state-funded poll found 84 percent of Floridians felt the existence of alligators in the state was "somewhat" to "very" important. This is one reason Florida maintains enough game wardens and nuisance-alligator trappers to field more than 15,000 nuisance complaints each year -- 20 times more than Texas -- yet still strictly limits alligator hunting.
"Alligators are important to Florida economically, environmentally and aesthetically," says Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "People come to Florida and want to see an alligator. We want that opportunity to be there somewhere other than a zoo."
Perhaps nobody has more to lose from the new hunting law than Janik, who responds to more Fort Bend County alligator nuisance calls than anyone. He uses alligators from Fort Bend County golf courses and swimming pools to stock his own alligator farm nest egg. It is poised to rival Porter's Processing someday as the largest alligator dealer in Texas -- assuming Janik's supply of animals isn't suddenly cut off by a hunting-fueled population crash.