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I found Frank Godwin out by the alligator pens. Godwin, 50, is the owner of the Gatorland Zoo in Orlando, Fla. He displays his 4,500 alligators for the entertainment of tourists, and he also markets their hides and meat. One of Gatorland's biggest attractions is the Gator Jumparoo, which features large alligators leaping out of a pond to snatch chicken carcasses suspended from a pulley-and-chain device that stretches over the water. When the chain is shaken to attract the alligators' attention, the footless and featherless chickens, suspended by their wings, seem to dance on air. This may not be the most grotesque thing that goes on in Florida, but it's certainly close.
It was after witnessing the Jumparoo with about 100 other people (some of whom were munching Gator Bites, little bits of breaded, deep-fried alligator flesh) that I sought out Godwin. He was supervising the installation of netting over some of the outdoor pens. "Alligator husbandry techniques are being refined all the time," he said, after explaining that the netting was a solution to a problem that had been plaguing his alligators. For several weeks they had been showing signs of stress, which in the alligator world means that their heads were cut and scarred. Godwin knew that they were chewing on each other, but he didn't know why.
The reason for his ignorance was that the crocodilian carnage was taking place while Godwin and the tourists were watching the Jumparoo. It seems that the bell which summoned spectators to the big event was also a signal to the 200 wood storks in the area that the coast was clear: Without human interference they could try to grab the chopped fish Godwin had left in the alligator pens. While the prize performers were earning their keep in the Jumparoo, the rest of the gator herd back on the ranch was being mightily provoked by the storks. "The alligators were getting so excited that they'd jump up for the birds, and what they did, they grabbed each other by the head," said Godwin, who finally saw the spectacle—the flapping wings, the diving birds, the snapping alligators catching mouthfuls, not of wood stork, but of each other. "That was absolute chaos. I've never seen such a thing in my life."
Once hunted into scarcity, then protected as an endangered species, the alligator is now back in force—in the wild, on farms, and in fine stores everywhere. Last September the state of Florida held its first public (although limited) alligator hunting season since 1962. Six thousand hunters applied for permits, and 238 were chosen by lottery. All but eight coughed up the $250 for a license. The hunters took a total of 2,988 alligators from 28 designated areas throughout the state. Though hunting was allowed only at night, no major injuries were reported—perhaps because no firearms were permitted. One man did shoot off the tip of a finger with a bang stick, a long tube that holds, at the business end, a .44-caliber or .357-magnum cartridge. The bang stick, developed for killing sharks, is not considered a firearm (pronounced "faaarm" by true Floridians) because the bullet is fired only when the stick is pressed against the target.
In addition to the population in the wild, there are now more than 75,000 captive alligators on 48 farms. Last year the farms produced 7,529 hides and 71,099 pounds of meat. As Godwin's son Mike, who worked the Jumparoo, said just before he induced an animal named George (I'm taking his word for it) to pluck a chicken carcass from his hand, "The American alligator is now considered a renewable resource."
The high point for crocodilians, of which alligators are one variety, was the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Reptiles, which occurred between 225 and 65 million years ago. One crocodilian ancestor, Phobosuchus, grew to 50 feet in length and may well have eaten dinosaurs. Of course, 65 million years ago the dinosaurs became extinct. It was all downhill from there for Florida's crocodilians. First the mammals took over, and then, before you knew it, people appeared—the Indians and then Ponce de León, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Don Johnson. The air boats arrived, and the condominiums. Swamps were drained, and the words Miami and vice became inseparable. It got so that when people said Florida was full of reptiles, they weren't talking about alligators at all.
The growth of the human population tended, until recently, to be accompanied by a decrease in the alligator population. There was extensive hunting of alligators in Florida as early as 1800, when a six-foot hide went for $7. By 1929, according to one estimate, 190,000 hides were being taken out of Florida annually. The hunting of alligators was first restricted in Florida in the mid-40s and then, in 1962, it was completely forbidden, though poaching continued. In 1967 the alligator was put on the endangered species list by the U.S. government, and in 1970 amended federal regulations finally shut down the interstate movement of alligator hides, thereby effectively stopping the hunting.
The alligator population bounced back, and fast. In 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the reptile's status in Florida to the less serious "threatened" category. In 1985 the alligator was taken off that list (for Florida), and given the formal status of "threatened by similarity of appearance," a quirky designation that allows the Feds to inspect skins whenever they deem it appropriate, to make sure that unscrupulous trappers are not passing off the skins of the endangered crocodile or the much less valuable cayman as hides of the alligator. According to a Fish and Wildlife spokesman, the alligator is now "completely recovered throughout its range."
Today, most alligator people, from trappers to game and fish officers to zoologists, will tell you that although the alligator may have been in some trouble, it was never in danger of disappearing. It was simply hiding from hunters. Once the hunting stopped, the alligators reappeared quickly, then proceeded to reproduce. In Florida in the '70s, the alligator and human populations were exploding at the same time, with the result that confrontations between the two species began increasing.
Usually alligators consider human beings too big to eat, but they (the alligators, that is) are unpredictable. Sometimes they change their minds. In 1973 there was a fatal attack on a 16-year-old girl swimming near Osprey. And in each of the past two years, there has been a fatal attack by an alligator on a human being. The incident last year, in which an alligator killed a four-year-old girl in Englewood, was particularly gruesome. But despite the publicity such attacks generate, alligators do not wreak the havoc one might imagine. Since 1948, when the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Florida's alligator authority, began keeping statistics, there have been only five confirmed fatal attacks on human beings by alligators.