Gator Aid

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, alligators are everywhere in southeast Texas. So now the state is going to make it easier for you to shoot you one.

"I believe it's going to be a bad development," he says.

On a sweltering afternoon, Janik walked through a field of pink flowers, followed by his rat terriers, Polly and Tiny Winy, which Janik chases down whenever they happen to slip inside the alligator pen. As they loped up and down the edge of a barbed-wire fence, Janik closed a gate behind him and led the way along the fringe of his breeding pond. Most of the 65 alligators here are still originally from the wild, or hatched from eggs collected from the wild under a state-controlled harvest program. "It's hard to get them to breed," he says, "and it's hard to keep them breeding."

Given captive alligators' sexual timidity, the health of wild alligator populations remains crucial to the hides-and-meat industry. In fact, devastation wreaked on Louisiana wetlands by hurricanes Katrina and Rita is driving an anticipated price spike in high-fashion alligator products this year -- a boon for Texans. Although it was hard to imagine a $10,000 Gucci purse coming out of Janik's smelly pond, where a putrid alligator leg was floating, his is actually a model facility. The leg was a scrap from a butchered gator that been tossed in intentionally as food.

Photo illustration by Monica Fuentes
Alligator trapper and nuisance hunter Larry Janik baits a hook with rancid chicken.
Daniel Kramer
Alligator trapper and nuisance hunter Larry Janik baits a hook with rancid chicken.

Janik and other hunters share a powerful use-what-you-kill ethos that drives much of their opposition to the new hunting law. The law will allow hunters to shoot free-swimming alligators in open water, where they will probably sink and be lost. A 1986 Texas Parks and Wildlife study found that 22 percent of free-swimming alligators that were shot by hunters weren't recovered. "There's going to be a lot of needless killing," Janik says.

Of course, not every sportsman in the state is going to apply for an alligator hunting license, least of all Janik's brother, Vernon, who was happily fishing nearby -- for catfish. He no longer helps his brother capture alligators. "You slip in the mud, they'll crush your skull," he said, making a crunching sound. "All of a sudden, you're nothing but mush."

Clearly, Vernon has heard his brother's war stories. Three years ago at a Brazoria County machine shop, Janik jumped on the back of a ten-foot alligator and grabbed its mouth. It rolled over and nearly knocked him out. A year later, Janik tried to flush an alligator out of a storm drain by pushing it with a circular piece of metal grate fencing. The animal charged over the grate and bit off a slice of his finger. He once lassoed a 13-foot alligator as wide as a 59-gallon drum, alive: "I will never, ever do it like that again," he admits, "because it's just too damn dangerous."

Janik's newest challenge was one of his most vexing. A landowner had drained a pond, revealing an alligator nest in the middle of the muck, guarded by an eight-foot harridan. Janik couldn't drive his truck through the deep mud, nor could he entice the alligator out of its hole from a distance. Instead, he was planning to walk across the slippery gumbo, stand on top of the gator hole and pound on it until the alligator came charging out, at which point he would take quick aim. But shooting it could easily go wrong. "I've seen a .22 bullet bounce off of one's nose," Cerrone says. Even a blast to the skull will often fail; stopping an alligator in its tracks requires targeting its tiny brain, hitting the charging beast with a shot placed just behind the eyes.

Leaving this kind of job to amateurs is a bit too sporting even for a sportsman. "When you allow people here in Texas to shoot alligators in open water," Janik says, "you are going to get a lot of fatalities."

And not all of those, he suggests, will be handled by the local taxidermist.

Backbiting

A tag team of pit bulls takes on a gator

Many face-offs between dogs and alligators end about as fast as you can say gulp. But sometimes the dogs bite back.

Last year, Rhee Hubbard found an alligator on her driveway facing down her two barking pit bulls, Patches and Jaws. The three-and-a-half-foot reptile bit off a chunk of Jaws's ear. Patches clamped its neck. "I mean, she latched on," Hubbard says.

The alligator pulled Patches 75 feet down a San Jacinto County dirt road and into a drainage ditch. Patches yanked it back. All the while, Jaws struggled to hold its tail, stripping off snatches of hide whenever he was whipped off. The battle raged for 20 minutes.

Snorting, squirming and leaching blood, the alligator eventually was crushed by Patches' vice grip.

"She's powerful," Hubbard says. "She's a muscle dog." -- Josh Harkinson

Gator Gotcha?

Dos and don'ts from those who should know

Is there an alligator in your bathtub? Call animal control. For those less intimate situations, here's the best advice from the experts.

Alligators are generally afraid of humans and will not attack unless provoked.

Just because you see an alligator in your yard doesn't mean it's a problem. It's probably just passing through on the way to a better habitat.

Alligators often sun themselves with their mouths open. They are not hunting. Their open mouths regulate their body temperatures.

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