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.

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.

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.
In addition to selling alligator meat, Janik eats it every week.
Daniel Kramer
In addition to selling alligator meat, Janik eats it every week.
Janik's workers skin a gator "belly-style," preserving a valuable portion of the hide.
Daniel Kramer
Janik's workers skin a gator "belly-style," preserving a valuable portion of the hide.
Sarah Cerrone, founder-director of Anahuac's Gatorfest, believes conserving alligators will be a boon to tourism.
Daniel Kramer
Sarah Cerrone, founder-director of Anahuac's Gatorfest, believes conserving alligators will be a boon to tourism.
Gary Saurage, owner of Gator Country in Jefferson County, coaxes 13-foot Big Al from his lair.
Daniel Kramer
Gary Saurage, owner of Gator Country in Jefferson County, coaxes 13-foot Big Al from his lair.
Mark Porter (left), owner of Porter's Processing and Gator Farm, determines the gender of an angry eight-footer.
Daniel Kramer
Mark Porter (left), owner of Porter's Processing and Gator Farm, determines the gender of an angry eight-footer.
Callie, age seven, learns the fundamentals of gator wrestling at Gator Country.
Daniel Kramer
Callie, age seven, learns the fundamentals of gator wrestling at Gator Country.

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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

• Don't feed alligators. It's against the law in Texas. Alligators lose their natural fear of people when they associate them with food.

• Don't let pets swim or run along the shoreline of waters known to contain large alligators. Alligators are most likely attracted to dogs because they are roughly the same size as alligators' natural prey.

• Fence your waterfront property. Fencing helps protect children and pets.

• Keeping an alligator as a pet is illegal.

• Don't swim in areas where vegetation such as reeds is poking out of the water. Alligators favor this type of habitat.

• Don't swim at dusk or at night in areas known to contain large alligators. They feed most actively during the evening hours.

• If you hear an alligator hiss, it is a warning that you are too close.

• It is common for alligators to pursue top-water fishing lures. This does not constitute a threat to humans.

• If you have any questions about whether an alligator's behavior indicates aggression, contact your regional office of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. -- Josh Harkinson

Tourist Gold

Gator Country is packing them in with 125 live gators, Cajun music and a hillbilly show

Gary Saurage is demonstrating what never, ever to do at home. Grabbing a long plastic pole, he slaps the surface of a pond. Two saffron eyes appear, move toward him and dip beneath the surface. "Get ready," he says. The water breaks and a 13-foot alligator charges onto the bank. Saurage holds his ground. He reaches out his hand and smacks the beast on the nose. It opens its jaws and lets out a flapping belch. Satisfied, Saurage tosses in a leg of chicken. The mouth shuts with an echoing clap.

"That's Big Al," he says.

A thousand pounds, at least 70 years old, and surprisingly well behaved for an alligator, Big Al is the star attraction of Gator Country, a Jefferson County alligator theme park. Since it opened in March, Gator Country has been packing in hundreds of visitors every weekend with thumping Cajun music, a choreographed hillbilly show and 125 live gators, illustrating the untapped potential in South Texas for alligator tourism.

"I've said this before: Something like this could make it," says Sarah Cerrone, the founder of the annual Gatorfest party in Anahuac, who is visiting Gator Country for the first time. "Because the interest we see in one weekend...pardon the pun, they're a great hook."

Sometimes the hook is a bit sharp. Saurage displays a scar on his thumb where an alligator ripped it open. His wife, Sarah, had been bitten less than a week ago when she was feeding an alligator and tried to pet it. The Saurages know that one flick of an alligator tail could spell trouble, especially for their seven- and four-year-olds. "They can slap the living snot out of you," Gary Saurage says.

Of course, there's little chance of that happening to a casual visitor. Although children can catch small alligators with wieners on fishing line, wire fences surrounding the enclosures keep audience and alligator apart. House rules prohibit people from taunting the animals or even drinking too much. In fact, the Saurages hope visitors will take alligator safety tips home with them, as well as a better understanding of how the reptiles are an important part of the ecosystem.

Nobody seems to be having as much fun with the venture as the Saurages -- that is, if your idea of fun is almost getting eaten.

On a recent afternoon, the couple made their way with a pack of chicken onto a thin pier that lay inches above a pond. Alligator eyes poked out of the water and drifted toward them from all directions. Kong, the biggest alligator in the pond, swam to the tip of the pier within inches of Sarah Saurage. Her husband wielded a paddle and fended off an eight-footer next to his feet. Hungry gators were everywhere. "Watch out, Sarah," he said. "Kong's looking."

Soon after Kong had his fill, another large alligator approached. This time, Sarah Saurage made kissing noises. Eight-foot-long Butch was a softie. "He'll let me rub him from eyes to nose," she said. Though after being bitten a few days ago, she opted today not to take her chances. -- Josh Harkinson Perp Walk A police log of what happens when an alligator strolls into town

Call received: 6/08/04, Harris County
Length: 8 feet 3 inches
Problem: At mail box
Further action: Lethal removal by TPWD (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)

Call received: 6/6/05, Harris County
Length: 2.5 feet
Problem: Alligator located in shopping center @ front door
Further action: Live capture

Call received: 4/13/05, Harris County
Length: 8 feet
Problem: Alligator was dumped at apartment complex. It was shot twice in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.
Further action: Warden Holland confiscated the alligator from the apartment complex. It was taken to alligator hunter Doug Head and Percy Johnson.

Call received: 5/13/05, Harris County
Length: 45 inches
Problem: U of H Clear Lake had a picnic and wanted the alligator removed
Further action: Live Capture

Call received: 4/20/04, Harris County
Length: 7 feet
Problem: Alligator laying across Beltway 8 during rush hour traffic
Further action: Live capture

Call received: 7/12/04, Aransas County
Length: 4 feet
Problem: Alligator in a crab trap
Further action: Game warden released on refuge

Call received: 6/21/04, Brazoria County
Length: 8 feet
Problem: Alligator came out of the Gulf of Mexico and crawled up on the beach where people were fishing and swimming
Further action: Alligator was relocated in Alligator Bayou

Call received: 6/27/05, Jefferson County
Length: 6 feet
Problem: Alligator caught -- tangled in rope
Further action: Contact game warden -- people feeding and trying to capture alligator -- Vietnamese fisherman set up line -- "had dead snakes" lined up -- using as bait!?

Call received: 5/27/05, Cameron County, US Immigration and Detention Center
Length: 7 feet
Problem: Alligator was impeding traffic entering and exiting facility
Further action: Relocated

Call received: 5/26/2004, Matagorda County
Length: 6 feet
Problem: Alligator was walking down the street, complainant felt like it should be removed from the area
Further action: Relocated by TPWD

Call received: 5/14/2004, Harris County
Length: 5 feet
Problem: No problem -- Citizen just reported seeing gator
Further action: NONE -- Educated public

Call received: 8/09/04, Orange County
Length: 2 feet
Problem: Alligator bothering residents by being in their ditch
Further action: Leave gator alone and he will move on to greener pastures, he's not hurting anything and would not come out of culvert for me to catch him.

Call received: 3/21/05, Harris County
Length: 3 feet
Problem: Homeowner described alligator as 3 ft, located just at poolside in his backyard. Had seen the alligator prior to leaving for work and called in the complaint from work.
Further action: The alligator was found at the given location but it was a small plastic alligator. Homeowner requested removal of said plastic alligator.

Call received: 12/9/05, Calhoun County
Length: 7 inches
Problem: Alligator was captured illegally and used as a pet
Further action: Relocated

Call received: 6/21/04, Live Oak County
Length: 4 feet
Problem: Six alligators were inhabiting a homemade swimming pool in the back yard of a residence
Further action: All six alligators were relocated to the Nueces River

Call received: 8/6/04, Orange County, TxDOT Travel Center
Length: 3.5 feet
Problem: Alligator frightened the window washers, visitor fed the gator and try [sic] to pet it.
Further action: Inform the public about the law, but they don't seem interested in doing this. They are getting the fire department to remove alligators, but this is not legal.

Call received: 4/25/04, Jefferson County
Length: 6 feet
Problem: Alligator was in a drainage ditch when some bystanders moved it to the top of the ditch. Alligator was brought to a nearby house. Alligator bit off the tip of a finger of a man at the house. (Bystanders told game warden Stephen Satchfield that the injured man had been showing kids at the scene "What not to do.")
Further action: Alligator was captured by me and relocated to Taylor's Bayou.

Call received: 9/7/04, Fort Bend County
Length: 4 feet
Problem: Alligator dropped off at door of vet clinic
Further action: Released in San Bernard River

Call received: 6/19/05, Fort Bend County
Length: 5–6 feet
Problem: Complainant has already lost one dog to an alligator and doesn't want to lose another one.
Further action: Released in rice canal on George Ranch.

Call received: 9/20/05, Jefferson County
Length: 14 feet
Problem: Alligator in canal next to pasture. Alligator has charged horses drinking.
Further action: Advised owner to use water trough.

Call received: 5/14/04, Gregg County
Length: 8 feet
Problem: Chasing cars on 149 bridge @ Sabine River.
Further action: Alligator was hit by a car and died before my arrival.

Call received: 6/14/04, Fort Bend County (Sugar Land)
Length: 3 feet -- 5 feet
Problem: Alligators being fed from apartments and Cafe Adobe open dining area, eating baby ducks
Further action: Released in Brazos River

Call received: 7/31/04, Brazoria County
Length: 3.5 feet
Problem: Alligator trying to get in chicken pen
Further action: Relocated

Call received: 5/14/04, Jackson County
Length: 5 feet
Problem: In airport runway area
Further action: Patrol area

Call received: 9/21/04, Cameron County
Length: 10 feet
Problem: Alligator was attempting to get under the back porch of residence
Further action: Replace tailgate on the TPWD vehicle due to damage caused by alligator.

Call received: 6/24/04, Matagorda County (residence)
Length: 4.5 feet
Problem: 4' Alligator in wash room
Further action: Relocated

Call received: 1/10/05, Montgomery County
Length: 8 feet
Problem: Alligator in drain pipe.
Further action: We think the alligator went into the pipe because of recent cold weather. The alligator is not stuck and it seems to have the ability to leave the pipe if he chooses.

Call received: 7/18/04, Fort Bend County, Texas Genco (power plant)
Length: 5 feet
Problem: Alligators are getting into sensitive areas of fuel handling operations
Further action: Released in Cow Creek.

Call received: 1/3/05, Jefferson County
Length: 5 feet and 6 feet
Problem: Alligators are too close to the employees' dedicated smoke area
Further action: Continue to monitor area for alligators

Call received: 7/19/04, Fort Bend County
Length: 3 feet
Problem: Kids throwing rocks at alligator.
Further action: Complainant was advised that there was a parenting problem in the neighborhood, not an alligator problem. Alligator couldn't be located anyway.

Call received: 9/2/04, Brazoria County
Length: 6 feet
Problem: Alligator walking through neighborhood, traveling from water hazard on hole #2 to water hazard on hole #5.
Further action: Continue to look for alligator.

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