2017-09-21 / Editorial Page

Catching Gators, That Ancient Reptire If your’re going to get ‘et,’ be brave and get ‘et.’

Across The Savannah
By TOM POLAND


Grand Bay Gator. Photos by Tom Poland. Grand Bay Gator. Photos by Tom Poland. Like a lot of eastern Georgians grew up with no contact with ga­tors. I heard a rumor that someone had seen one crossing Poland Road from my granddad’s pond. Never verified that. Never saw a gator growing up. My writing career, however, would put me around gators far more than I would have imagined as a boy in rural Geor­gia.

Earlier this summer I drove over to Woods Bay State Park near Olanta, South Carolina, which I as­sure you should never be confused with Atlanta. Woods Bay State Park is a protected Carolina bay, one of Earth’s more mysterious landforms, one known for its pond cypress swamps, rare species, and gators. Lots of gators. I parked and immediately noticed no one but me was there. No rangers. No visitors. Just me. As I stepped out of my car heard what sounded like a televi­sion dropping into water. “That’s got to be a gator,” I thought.

With camera and tripod over my shoulder I headed for the board­walk that crossed the bay’s watery interior. I walked slowly, looking for snakes. On to the boardwalk about forty yards out I set my tri­pod onto the decking. That’s when happened. A gator burst right out from beneath my feet and exploded across the water. I scared him and he scared me. Call it even.

That’s the closest I’ve been to gator in the wilds and it’s as close as I care to come. A few days later occurred to me that had the gator somehow made it onto the board­walk it could have cut me off from escape. That thought gave me good case of goosebumps.

That gator, that most ancient reptile is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatori­dae. If you’re a scientist you might refer to it as Alligator mississippi­ensis. If you see a number of gators together you’re looking at a co­hort— a group of gators. Consider these baleful creatures, emissaries from the distant past. The species can claim to have lived on this wa­tery planet for more than 150 mil­lion years old, and it’s done some­thing dinosaurs could not: avoid extinction 65 million years ago.


Gator mouth. Gator mouth. Back in August I spent some time with a man who has captured, studied, and tagged gators, and more than once pried a gator jaw from around a fellow’s hand. Phil Wilkinson, described as maybe the most famous person you’ve never heard of, has studied gators for al­most forty years. He and I worked together back in my wildlife days at what is today’s South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Department. One reporter referred to him as the “Gator Guy.” To study gators you have to catch them. Ga­tor Guy has caught and studied hundreds. Maybe thousands.


Gator. Gator. Wilkinson caught Big Bertha, at nine feet seven and three-quarter inches, the largest female gator ever caught on record anywhere, Florida or South Carolina. Fe­males, Wilkinson points out, don’t grow as large as males. That re­ 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 201720,838,040 cord was broken in Florida ten years later by one inch by not one but two gators caught the same day in Lake Apopka. Wilkinson caught both gators while working with a research team. “We named one Hillary and the other Tipper, not that we were being political about it but you might as well name the biggest gator after the first lady of the land.”

To catch a gator Wilkinson said you lock its jaws. It only takes two seconds to do it—if you are expe­rienced, a well-oiled machine. The top snout is weak. Once you bind it to the lower snout, the gator can’t open its jaws. You can clip the legs too and hobble it. “The mouth is the first thing you get under control be­cause that’s where they can do the damage.” The tail can be trouble too. A gator can slam you against a tree with its powerful tail.

Wilkinson caught one gator he nicknamed “Truck Biter.” Over the years, Wilkinson had caught the gator several times and each time it was bigger. The last time he caught it, in 2005, the gator was 12-foot one. Two biologists from Argen­tina, Andre and Pablo, were with Wilkinson to see how he captured gators because they had a similar routine with caimans.

“When we turned him loose, he was pretty mad,” said Wilkin­son. The truck, driven by a fellow named Steve, was parked close to where they turned the gator loose. Wilkinson sat on the tailgate on a cooler of ice water facing the di­rection he thought the truck was going. “I said, ‘Steve, let’s just go around the back instead of backing by that gator. It’s kind of mad.’ ”

Steve said to hell with that and started backing around the gator. The gator bit the fender and ripped it off the truck. Steve slammed on the brakes and started going the other way. Wilkinson lost his bal­ance and began to fall toward the gator. Pablo, sitting on the side of the truck, reached over and grabbed his belt and pulled him back into the truck.

“Pablo, you saved my life,” said Wilkinson. Later down in South America, Wilkinson got a chance to get Pablo out of trouble. “Now we’re even,” Wilkinson told him.

So, what’s it like to catch a big gator, one that can rip off a fend­er? What’s it like to lock those big jaws down? You’d think it’s a scary enterprise. Wilkinson said everything goes on too fast to get frightened. “Frightened doesn’t get you anywhere. You got to be think­ing about something besides being frightened. If you’re going to get ‘et,’ be brave and get ‘et.’ Don’t be frightened about it.”

Wilkinson said it’s not a macho thing. “You go about it in a tried and true way. You have a crew that works with you; each person has something to do. It’s like doing a surgical operation. When you get through, everything worked like it did last time. If there’s a dangerous aspect we try to eliminate it.”

Wilkinson’s approach to captur­ing gators has been honed by close to forty years of experience. The only problem now, said Wilkinson, is that “I’m getting slower. So I push younger boys in front of me. ‘You go do it.’ ”

Most are okay doing that but ev­ery now and then he’s had a young fellow climb a tree. And he’s had other people get caught by a gator. “Back in ’93 the crew I was work­ing with had a girl, Sudy, with it. She had graduated from Carolina in Art and was going to work with us that summer because it sounded like something fun to do.”

He had two fellows working with him as well, Mark and Andrew, in short, a crew of interns. “We had caught a lot of gators one morning and Mark, who was getting tired, warned the crew to be careful. He told them that catching gators was kind of like riding a motorcycle. Just when you think you know how, you wind up with handlebars up your behind. The very next ga­tor, after giving that spiel, Mark got both hands caught in a gator’s mouth.”

Wilkinson who was getting tools from the truck heard Mark cry out. He knew exactly what had hap­pened and reached for a long nar­row chisel. “Sudy immediately jumped on the alligator to keep it from rolling. Had the gator been able to roll, turn, or jerk its head around it could have done a lot of damage.”

Wilkinson ran the chisel into the gator’s mouth and pried down on the other side’s gum. “I popped it a few times and said, ‘Mark, when she loosens up you get the hell out of there.’ She did. Mark pulled his hands free and we got her clamped down and finished doing what we had to do while Mark sat over there and bled.”

They freed the gator and Wilkin­son told Andrew to take Mark to the hospital and get him some shots. Though it looked like he had caught his hand in a sewing ma­chine, Mark was at work the next day.

So that is a glimpse of how you catch a gator and a warning of sorts. Don’t try it. Do you want your hand or arm in gator jaws? Reader be warned: do not try to catch a gator of any size. Leave that to the pros who study gators and remove nuisance gators. Leave it to the Gator Guy and other pros who know what they’re doing.

Visit my website at www.tompo­land.net

Email me at tompol@earthlink.net

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