I moved to Florida in the 1950s, when rattlesnakes slithered through back yards, and stifling summers without air conditioning brought strange tropical ailments to my siblings and me. Small cuts on our sweaty bodies would balloon into painful, bright-red boils. Roundworms burrowed into our bare feet and inched their way upwards, creating creepy little subcutaneous pathways. On summer nights, swarms of mosquitoes descended, and when the mosquito-spraying truck appeared, all the neighborhood kids would run after it, giddy and invisible in clouds of poison.
My grandchildren are growing up in a tamer, sanitized Florida, where primal nature has been replaced by suburban developments, big-box stores and ubiquitous air-conditioning. But Florida still has its wild side, as we realized when my son Matt spotted an 11-foot alligator in the narrow creek in his back yard, just a few blocks off busy Bee Ridge Road near U.S. 41.
Matt called his wife, Mara, who called the alligator hotline—yes, there is one—and then called me. “They said they don’t relocate alligators that big,” she said. “They’re sending a trapper to catch and kill it. I feel bad about its family.”
“Mara, they’re reptiles,” I said. “They lay eggs; they don’t live in extended families.”
Still, she fretted all the way home. Then she took one look at the prehistoric predator floating 20 feet away from her three little boys and changed her tune. “It’s either him or us,” she declared. “Where’s that trapper?”
A few minutes later, Kevin Hibler arrived. After studying the alligator, he announced it was about 40 years old and weighed around 450 pounds. Then, as the entire family watched from the safety of the back porch, he walked up to the alligator and tried to lasso it. After the second attempt, the alligator glided off and sank under the murky water.
Hibler is one of about 50 trappers who freelance for the state. For most, it’s a labor of love, as they earn only $30 (plus whatever they can get for selling the hide and meat) for every “nuisance” alligator they trap and destroy or, occasionally, relocate. Alligators more than four feet long that appear to be menacing humans are considered nuisances, and in a state that’s home to 1.3 million alligators, that subset is hefty—8,118 nuisance alligators were captured in 6,500 different Florida locations last year alone.
Those locations might surprise you. Alligators have been removed from numerous golf courses, highways and waterways, but also from a Port Charlotte minor league baseball dugout, the fenced-in yard of a Manatee County middle school and the NASA runways at Cape Kennedy. They wake people in the middle of the night by lurching around in lanais, carports and porches, or in one case, by “knocking” on the front door with a powerful snout. They love swimming pools; recently a South Florida couple decided to do some midnight skinny-dipping and almost dove on top of one. Another gator lived for quite a while in a jacuzzi in Vero Beach; the owner told authorities it was there when he bought the house and he liked to feed it chicken.
Southwest Florida ranks high in Florida for alligator removals, and this year, Hibler told me, trappers have been inundated with calls, probably because droughts have lowered pond and river levels, making alligators more visible.
Fast and powerful, alligators can and do attack people, as the heart-rending death of a little boy last year at Disney World reminded us. But Hibler says most pose little risk if left alone. Many alligators that must be destroyed lost their fear of humans once people started feeding or approaching them.
“Never, ever feed an alligator,” he says. “I can’t overstate it.”
Summer is prime time for alligators, who are most active in temperatures from 82 to 92. It’s also their mating season, when bulls get aggressive and roam in search of a mate. That may be what drove that alligator to my kids’ back yard. So far, it hasn’t returned. But a baby alligator has taken its place, spending long afternoons sunning in that preternatural, unmoving silence of reptiles.
The kids aren’t exactly afraid, says Mara, but they’ve seen that dark and savage forces can intrude into everyday life. Earlier this year, Matt had put up a pup tent near the creek and 9-year-old Alan liked to do his homework there. “He doesn’t do that anymore,” she says.