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Florida’s Urban Sprawl No Match for Lovelorn Gators

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The springtime drama took place along the sunny lake shore at Jones Trailer Park west of Miami, where the young Labrador belonging to the man in Lot 27 loved to play.

Wanda Chambers didn’t witness the attack. But she saw the 7-foot alligator amble by her two-bedroom mobile home afterward, the brown dog’s lifeless form clamped in its powerful jaws.

“The gator ... was swinging it up in the air and just tearing it apart,” the 55-year-old Chambers said. “Now the gator is back by my dock, laying on the bank.” She is afraid the reptile’s next victim will not be a pet, but one of the young children who like to sail toy boats on the lake.

It’s May, the height of the mating season for Florida’s alligators. And because of hormonal secretions, the walnut-size brains of these giant reptiles are filled with thoughts of love. Males have become meaner and more competitive, driving thousands of rival suitors out of the Everglades and backwoods and into more populated areas--people’s yards, garages, carports, swimming pools, and neighborhood lakes.

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“A lot of people say: ‘Cherry blossoms in Washington, it’s spring,’ ” said Todd Hardwick, a professional wild animal trapper and native Floridian. “I say: ‘Alligators in the driveway, it’s spring. Lock up your poodles.’ ”

In the checkered saga of the Sunshine State’s fast-paced growth, it is hard to find a more emblematic story than man’s conflict with the alligator. For as long as 4 million years, Alligator Mississipiensis and its ancestors have dwelt in these locales. As for the humans, many in Florida literally got here just last year.

With an estimated 1,000 new residents each day on average, more and more homes are going up in areas that traditionally were alligator habitat. During mating time, Floridians consequently are more likely to find themselves face to face with a cold-blooded predatory beast that is one of nature’s most perfect killing machines.

“What used to be the basking areas, where alligators would lay out in the sun, or nesting areas 10 years ago are now golf courses, people’s backyards, swimming pools,” said Louis Guillette, a professor of zoology at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a gator specialist.

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Humans should remember that, historically speaking, they are the trespassers, Guillette said. “I’m always amazed that people come to Florida and build a brand-new house on the side of a lake, and they’re shocked the first time they put their boat in the water and want to go water skiing, and there are alligators.”

That doesn’t mean older, built-up areas are gator-free. Hardwick, who is licensed by the state to trap nuisance alligators, has pulled animals out of the Miami River in the heart of Florida’s biggest city. Last week, Hardwick, 39, rolled out of bed at 2 a.m. to snare an 8-foot, 150-pound gator that was waddling down the shoulder of the well-traveled road outside Burger King headquarters.

Last year, there were 16,749 complaints of gators threatening people, pets or property--a record since the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began keeping a tally in 1977. More than 7,200 gators judged a risk by game wardens were captured and killed.

But that was not enough to avert the 11 incidents in which alligators bit people, or the three fatal attacks. A 2-year-old Polk County girl who wandered from her home was grabbed by a gator at least three times her weight and dragged into a lake, where she drowned. An 8-footer snatched a 70-year-old man in Venice, pulled him into a pond and mauled his head, chest and arms, causing him to bleed to death. On Sanibel Island, off Fort Myers on the state’s west coast, an 81-year-old man was attacked as he walked his dog. The alligator tore off the man’s right leg from the knee down.

“Alligators have great smell and great vision,” Guillette said. “And they are opportunistic eaters. If you take your puppy dog down by the lake ... it becomes prey. Toddlers too.”

In 1967, alligators were placed on the first federal list of endangered species. But experts now say that their numbers might have been underestimated and the alarm over their fate unwarranted. Florida is home to about 1 million alligators, which live in all of the state’s 67 counties.

“They are just so dominant in the environment they live in, they have no reason to be fearful of anything,” said Harry Dutton, alligator management section leader at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee.

This is the season when Hardwick can’t count on a full night’s sleep. From Miami south to Key West, when a gator is designated a threat, state officials call on the cheerful trapper from The Redlands to remove it. Throughout Florida, there are 40 authorized alligator trappers, who aren’t paid by the state for their labors but who get to keep the hides and meat of the animals they catch and kill. (Hardwick makes a living by trapping other critters that invade homes and yards.)

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“It’s life-threatening work,” Hardwick said. “If they grab you by the thumb, they’ll drag you into the lake or a canal, and it’s all over.”

Given the risks, the trapper has a surprising love and respect for alligators. If there’s a conflict between a gator and someone who has just built a $500,000 home on wetlands that had been alligator habitat, Hardwick said, his heart is with the reptile.

“If it were up to me, the people would go and the gator would stay,” said Hardwick, who keeps a 6-footer named Wally at home for talks to schoolchildren about how to coexist safely with alligators.

One day last week, Hardwick aimed his pickup south to a fish farm at Florida City, on the fringes of the Everglades. The 27-acre site, where striped bass are raised, was being overrun by alligators that had started chasing the workers.

“I can’t have gators eating my people,” said John Hewitt, the general manager.

Employing the same large fishhooks used to catch sharks, Hardwick threw out bait that gators seem to find delectable--rotten pig lungs that float on the water’s surface. The next morning, he returned to find he’d hooked five gators--two 5-footers and three measuring from 8 to 9 feet each.

Hardwick dragged each angry animal onto the bank with the parachute cord connected to a hook, looped a wire snare around its neck, then warily mounted it like a cowboy busting a bronco. Sitting astride the gator, he secured its jaws shut with electrical tape and trussed the legs so it couldn’t move. Later, he’d drive to a slaughterhouse, where the gators would be killed and butchered for the meat and skins.

Despite his feelings for the animals, Hardwick said the safety of humans has to come first. “The gators’ hormones are running rampant, causing them to go looking for love in all the wrong places,” he said. “If we didn’t do what we do, there’d be a lot of fatalities.”

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Dutton said that, thanks to better education, Floridians are becoming more tolerant of alligators and more willing to share the environment with them. Hardwick is openly skeptical and believes the state’s continuing growth will ensure him work for years to come.

“Every year, you have more people, more alligators and less habitat,” he said. “Sounds like a collision to me.”


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