The .22 rifle is the most used weapon but some poachers prefer other, more silent, methods. Machetes, harpoons, ball peen hammers and ax handles are employed, too. (In Tanganyika crocodiles are netted.)
To get close enough to a gator to hit him on the head with a hammer is quite easy. When approached, the drifting alligator sinks beneath the water—closing his eyes and valves in his ears as he docs so—but he remains in the same spot. He can be raised by very gently lifting him under the chin until he breaks water. Then the poacher promptly hits him on the head, being careful to strike the brain area. This is not so dangerous as it sounds. A man with normally strong hands can hold a big alligator's mouth closed with just his thumb and fingers. The reptile's mouth-opening muscles are amazingly feeble. Not those, however, with which he closes his mouth.
Giddens, who lives with his family in a part of the forest, estimated that there are between 2,000 and 2,500 alligators in his 25,000-acre refuge. But there are more of them outside such protected areas, which include the Everglades, than in those which get what little specific protection there is.
"There are times when you'd swear there are no gators left," he said. "Then the rain comes and they'll be walking down the street and crawling along the ditches.
"At Homosassa Springs people feed them marshmallows and ice-cream bars. It's the most ridiculous thing you ever saw, to watch a 14-foot alligator fighting for a marshmallow. It has become a nuisance because they have lost their fear of man and even climb into boats looking for food."
Without fear of man, the alligator is truly dangerous, especially to children and dogs. O. Earle Frye Jr., director of the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, told of an instance in 1959 in which an alligator was supposed to have killed an 11-year-old boy, whose body was found in the gator's cave. (They tunnel for as much as 20 feet into the banks of their water holes.)
"However," Frye said, "the bank was steep and the boy may have fallen into the water and drowned before the gator got to him. There have been reports of gators attacking people, and there is one case where a gator pulled a little girl into a pit. But this was a 'tame' gator and she had been feeding it. She started to scream and he let her loose.
"Our phone rings constantly in such places as Orlando about some little gator swimming in a lake and going to eat up everybody. But I would feel much safer swimming in the most gator-infested section of Florida than walking down a street with dogs yapping at me."
Frye, stressing that it was strictly a guess, estimated that there were somewhere between 25% and 50% fewer alligators in Florida than there were 10 years ago, when killing them became illegal.
"If it had not been for the illegal taking of alligators they would not have reduced in number, they would have come up," he said. "If we can completely protect alligators they would increase because there is plenty of land left for them."