Walter Banks is standing on the bow of our boat, armed with a bow and arrow, searching the banks of the canal with a light strapped to his forehead. A semihysterical policwoman is in a condominium on the shore. Somewhere in the water is an alligator with 88 teeth in a mouth the officer claims is big enough to swallow a Greyhound bus.
"When the light hits his eyes, they'll glow red," whispers Banks, who looks in the dim light like Clint Eastwood starring in Robin Hood of the Everglades.
Alligator hunting is illegal in Florida. It has been since 1962, when the snaggle-toothed reptiles were put on the endangered species list. In their pursuit of hides for shoes, purses and belts, hunters had nearly wiped out the 200-million-year-old species in Florida and the half-dozen other southern states where they are found.
Now the gator is back. After a federal law curbed the sale of hides in the early 1970s, the survivors regrouped in remote swamps and multiplied. Louisiana has just held its first alligator hunting season in 18 years, hides are again for sale in some places and Florida now has between 600,000 and 1 million alligators.
"We've got alligators in backyards, alligators in swimming pools, alligators everywhere," says Tom Stice, a biologist with Florida's Game and Freshwater Fish Commission and the coordinator of South Florida's Nuisance Alligator Program. In an average week, his office will get 100 calls complaining about alligators camped behind $200,000 townhouses or which have just gobbled up someone's French poodle.
When the complaint is legitimate, Stice calls Banks. He is one of 20 trappers licensed to catch and kill alligators. The men are not paid for the work. Instead, they get the meat, which is said to be right tasty, and 70 percent from the sale of the hide, which brings about $20 a foot. Alligators grow to 14 feet and larger and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
The alligator resurgence is one of the few success stories in Florida wildlife. There are 82 species in the state on the endangered list. Their demise is due more to loss of habitat through drain-age programs and developments than hunting, although last year game wardens broke up a poaching operation that was stealing the eggs of an endangered turtle species and selling them to Haitians as aphrodisiacs.
Florida's newest residents do not mix well with the furred and feathered natives, especially when those wild things leave the interior for a visit to the coast. Most of the city-bred folk don't retire here to get closer to snakes, gators and birds of prey.
"You wouldn't believe some of the calls we get," says Lt. Biff Lampton of the game commission. "People want us to come and catch frogs. They'd rather hear a freight train at night than frogs croaking."
Relations between Florida's humans and its wildlife reached a particularly frenzied state last summer after the game commission announced a special hunt to thin out a herd of 5,500 deer in danger of starving to death.
A Miami lawyer filed suit to stop the hunt. A few conservation groups rallied to the cause and the national media reacted to the story.
The deer had moved into an area of sawgrass just above the Everglades National Park that had dried out after two consecutive years of drought. When an unexpected tropical storm dumped a torrent there just after water control officials had released their own generous amount of water into the area, the deer were trapped in 30 inches of water that covered most of their food.
After a court delayed the hunt for two days, a compromise was reached. Hunters could go after deer on one side of a road while conservationists with tranquilizer guns could attempt to rescue deer on the other side. Hunters killed 723 deer; the conservationists captured 18. All but six of the 18 later died and state wildlife officials say another 1,200 starved in the months following the controversy.
"People didn't want the hunting. They either wanted us to capture the deer and put them somewhere else, which was impossibe to do, or let nature take its course," said Stice. "Well, Mother Nature is not a rosy-cheeked grandmother. They (deer) don't die peaceful deaths in their sleep."
The alligator hunters have not roused any great public outcry. Although gators aid other wild life by creating pools in the Everglades that retain water during dry spells, they are neither soft nor cuddly.
There have been only three known deaths caused by alligators since 1973 in Florida, but there have been many more attacks on humans and their pets who are often just one quick swallow to a good-sized alligator.
Banks trapped a 14-foot alligator last year that had destroyed a man's boat dock and eaten his 75-pound Irish setter. It takes only one story like that to get the local populace quaking at the sight of the official state animal.
"I was frantic. I turned around in my backyard and there was this alligator moving toward me. I screamed and ran." That is Regina Siedentopf talking. She is a young Miami Beach police officer, newly arrived from Colorado, who lives in a condominium development on the edge of the Everglades.
"I go against some nasty people in my job. But that just did not look like a nice guy," said Siedentopf.
While Banks perched on the bow of the boat with his compound bow and arrow, his trapping partner, George Rodriquez, piloted the three of us up and down the canal. We were looking for a pair of eyes shining red in the darkness and hoping they would not be set too far apart.
"I don't ever want to catch another 14-footer," said Banks, 34, a Florida "cracker" by way of New York. He learned about alligators while working in the reptile house at the Bronx Zoo.
"You get one of those big boys up against your boat and you wonder what the hell you're doing out there," said Rodriquez, a soft-spoken man who works as a receiving clerk in a hospital by day and admits to bringing a healthy fear to his night-time job. "If you're not afraid, you're a fool."
This night there would be no fear to face. The alligator was gone, probably through a water culvert into a large lake nearby. Banks and Rodriguez seemed more disappointed than Siedentopf.
"When you see it move, it really is kind of elegant," she said. "I guess the alligator has to survive somehow too."
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