Alligator! Life and death in the Everglades

For decades, man and reptile have lived in relative harmony in Florida. But this month alone, three people have been killed. David Usborne reports from a state in the grip of gator-phobia
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The Independent US

Ricky Kramer watches the battered Ford pick-up pull into the dirt drive of his five-acre property 20 miles east of West Palm Beach in Florida and sighs. "Loser," he mutters, sluicing puddles of fresh blood from around his feet with a hose. The last hour has been sweaty and grim work; he could have used some help.

As the truck judders to a halt and the driver, who identifies himself only as Scott, steps out, a loud banging erupts from the cargo bed, enclosed by a metal hood. There is a big animal inside that clearly wants out. "A nine-footer," says Scott, a wide grin breaking his deep tan.

Scott has just missed what Mr Kramer says is the worst part of being among the few licensed alligator trappers in Florida: killing time. He is standing in a raised wooden shed with a large galvanised tub sunk into the floor and filled with water. Just an hour ago, the tub was alive with 30 thrashing reptiles.

Alligator brains are small, about the size of a thumb, but Mr Kramer knew exactly where to place the barrel of his small .22 rifle as he lifted each alligator to the surface of the water with a metal gaff, their jaws already secured with duct tape. With each execution, the water turned a deeper hue of rust and a bad smell filled the air. "I can't stand this part," Mr Kramer says. "I'm a Floridian and I love alligators."

Mr Kramer, a man with a narrow physique you would not expect of an alligator wrangler, is sincere. He has been a trapper for 17 years and his father did it for 26 years before him. But, as he well knows, the affection felt by most Floridians for these spiny creatures is under strain like never before.

Since the start of May, alligators have attacked and killed three people in the sunshine state, including a 28-year-old woman who was jogging beside a canal in the Fort Lauderdale area, just south of here, 10 days ago. The other victims were a tourist, Annemarie Campbell, 23, of Paris, Tennessee, who was snorkelling in a lake in the centre of the state and Judy Cooper, 43, of Dunedin, beside a canal 20 miles north of St Petersburg, near the Gulf of Mexico.

The deaths have awakened Floridians to the dangers of living in a sub-tropical climate, dangers they forget or do not even know. The horror of the killing of the jogger, Yovy Suarez Jiminez, was brought home when trappers caught the alligator responsible, pulling her severed arms from its belly.

Experts are struggling to explain this as well as the two other deaths. They have ruled out the animal chasing the jogger down the path. Ms Suarez may have been resting on the bank when the alligator lunged from the water. We do know this is a period of heightened peril. It is mating season when alligators become protective. A long stretch of dry, hot weather has also made them more active.

But such a string of fatalities is unheard of. Until this month, only 17 deaths from alligator attacks had been recorded in Florida since 1948. "This has never happened before," says Lindsey Hord, a biologist who runs the alligator management programme for the state's Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. "That's a lot of fatalities for an entire year, so to have three so close to each other is really phenomenal."

Part of Mr Hord's job is to supervise a free telephone hotline for anyone in the state with an alligator emergency, one on the lawn, perhaps, or crawling off with a pet in its jaws. With the three alligator-caused deaths front-page news, the normally calm call-centre was off the hook all last week. "We are inundated," Mr Hord says, with panicky Florida residents seeing murderous alligators everywhere.

Mr Kramer and the other state-approved trappers have to respond to each emergency call. All of the alligators he is killing today at $30 (£16) a time were caught after hotline calls from residents, and, in most cases, from the gardens of private homes in the myriad new housing developments that in recent years have marched relentlessly westward from the coast, carpeting thousands of acres of once-pristine wetland.

Trapping takes patience. Mr Kramer's technique usually is to grab an alligator with a gaff, usually without getting wet himself, and hooking a fishing line into him before he flees back into the water. Much like a deep-sea fisherman, he then plays him on the line, sometimes for an hour or more, to wear him down. "The longer you fight them in the water, the less you have to fight them on the land," he says.

People want to know why the alligators are suddenly invading urban areas, but Mr Kramer says they have it the wrong way round. "People ask why the alligators are coming into their backyard when it is us going into the alligators' back yard. You've got to understand that we are the ones encroaching on their territory. We keep moving further west and the more we develop, the more we are going to see this kind of problem."

He also chides people for their lack of common sense, especially those newly arrived in the state. "Some of them don't have the slightest idea that the alligators are even out there," he says. "You see the old ladies coming down here and they tie up their dogs right on the edge of canal and when they come back, 'Hey, where's the doggie gone?' Then they'll see the alligator parading past with the dog in its jaws."

Then there are the people who feed the alligators, causing them to lose their fear of humans and associate people with food. "They give them marshmallows, potato chips, whatever," Mr Kramer says, adding that workers on all the building sites are the worst. "I've watched a 9ft alligator crawl out of the water up to a construction site fence. It was 12 o'clock, midday, so what do you think he was doing there?"

Killing 30 alligators in a day is hardly normal for Mr Kramer, but with Florida in the grips of gator-phobia, these are not normal times. Usually, he expects to capture about 500 reptiles a year. Though he hates killing them - relocation is not allowed, because they are territorial and have an acute homing instinct - that means 500 fewer alligators with the potential to attack humans. What he is doing partly, in fact, is population control.

At this time of year, biologists at Wildlife and Fisheries, led by the 56-year-old Mr Hord, spend almost every night skimming across the surviving wetlands, lakes and canals in the interior of southern Florida on fan-driven airboats to monitor alligator population levels. Tonight, he has agreed to allow a visiting correspondent to come for the ride, providing he works a little.

Our area of inspection is on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee, the shallow, 750-square mile body of water - sometimes known as Florida's inland sea - that feeds water to the Everglade National Park to its south. Tonight we have two airboats and I am to accompany Blair Hayman. She will drive the boat, she says, while training a spotlight on alligators in the water. We wear headsets with microphones so we will be able to talk over the engine noise and I have a computer tablet where I will enter the alligator data.

We fly across the waters and in and out of thick patches of saw-grass at alarming speed. But more astonishing than Ms Hayman's skill at the controls is her ability to spot the furtive alligators. Sometimes she needs only to spy a churning of the water. More often, it is pairs of eyes that give the animals away, burning orange-red in the light beam. Sometimes there are so many, they look like the cats' eyes that line the edge of a road, except that they suddenly go out when our boat approaches and the startled alligators dive.

When finally we return to the boat-ramp a little after midnight, the trip is declared a success. I have avoided dropping my computer overboard - not even when an encounter with rocks almost catapulted the both of us out of our seats - and I have recorded sightings of more than 500 alligators, from tiddlers barely 3ft long to monsters of 11ft or over. On Mr Hord's boat, he has had a similarly fruitful night. The data should concur with his general observation that in this area the alligator population is stable.

The primary reason for observing population levels is to determine the number of licenses Mr Hord will issue for the short public alligator-hunting season that begins in late August. But today it also allows him to dispel another myth that has taken hold, that the alligator numbers are exploding and hence the upswing in attacks.

Again, people are looking at the problem backwards. It is not the alligator population that is rising. "The number of alligator attacks may have gone up, but the proportion of people being attacked hasn't," Mr Hord says. "There's just a lot more people here. And everyone wants to be living around water, on the lakes and canals and streams, and the alligators are there too."

Back at Ricky Kramer's place, Domenico Caporicci, an incongruously dapper man in Chanel sunglasses and a pressed shirt, watches as the alligator carcasses are piled up in the trailer behind his four-wheel-drive Chrysler. Soon, he will drive them to a skinning plant about an hour away. And then what? He smiles and points to the animals, death throes jerking their limbs. "They are all going to Gucci."