Many years ago I had a close encounter of the creepy kind with a lake full of crocodiles. I swore I would not repeat the experience. And for over 25 years the crocs wallowed in their brine while I wallowed in my own habitat far, far away. This delightful state of being lasted until my editor saw a story I wrote about crocodiles. He decided that the experience somehow qualified me to do a story on gator hunting. Which is how I found myself in
In short order the airboat was unloaded and I was hauled aboard, trussed in a lifejacket, seated on a high perch, given earmuffs and safety instructions and we were off. The river was still and lonely in the twilight. The airboat rose up gently then rocketed forward and hurtled down the river. The foliage closed us in and we disappeared from civilization.
Reluctantly my eyes left the birds and found a new delight. Bubbles and brown water marked the path of the gator. It’s a big one and incredibly fast. These babies look bulky and slow in all the pictures I’ve seen. But though at rest they look like tree trunks with legs; in a race for dinner you would be the main course. The lake is shallow, which makes for easy gator spotting. Even my rookie eyes soon got the hang of it. Languid streams of bubbles point the way until the airboat nears. Then the gators and the bubbles accelerate to warp speed. We twist and turn on a dime but the gators are even faster. We give chase for a while then break off down the lake to explore.
Hurricanes take away and give back. This lake was completely choked with marsh plants until hurricane Charlie swept through and uprooted them. Now only occasional clumps are scattered here and there. The water table, so long a concern for Florida is now full giving fresh nourishment to countless species along with mankind. People too often wrapped up in their own little worlds come together during times of danger such as a hurricane and great heroics are seen as well as incredible acts of kindness. The storms remind us that man and beast share this planet and are interconnected.
It’s fully dark now and with it comes a new way of looking for gators. A large torch lights up gator eyes reflecting a characteristic red. Dark logs move. The space between the eye bump and the shoulders that poke out of the water give an indication of the size of the gator. Looking around I see we are surrounded. These creatures belong here and I don’t. This lake is not used widely for recreation so wildlife thrives. Phil sees something and shines his light on a raccoon. The creature blinks and disappears. Earlier in the day I was shopping in Orlando. Now I am in a primeval forest a million years away in experience. Spanish moss drips from the gnarled trees. Cypress knees tangle with one another making passage difficult. I came on a gator hunt and rediscovered a part of me usually buried in the rat race. This is no longer a story it is soul food.
A light caught our eye in the distance. The other boat is the only one to share the lake this night. We wave as they go by. A lot of people are missing out tonight as they sit in their comfortable chairs in front of their televisions, but I am glad for the solitude.
Phil Walters took a long way around to become a gator hunter. He used to be a Sommelier. That blows my mind as I have always pictured (my apologies for stereotyping), a sommelier as a very elegant, somewhat sissified, city person who would never get muck on his expensive shoes or gator parts on his hands. While I am certain Phil was good at the wine business, he really fits this life. He is at ease here and passionate about his work. He became an activist along the way. Hunting over the years has gotten a bad name partly because our society has grown so urban and technological and partly because the few bad eggs give fodder to the folks who disagree with hunting as a way of life. Those who value this life and what it offers them and society have begun to be voices crying in the wilderness.
Gator hunting is a very sustainable resource. It is also a sport that gives back a lot. Permits fees for hunting go back into conservation. There are records of alligator hunting as far back as the late 1800s. Over time, unregulated practices endangered the gators. In 1967 the gators were put on an endangered species list. However, not until 1970, when an amendment to the Lacy Act was passed, did the poaching of alligators began to diminish. The Act gave officials the tools to reduce poaching and the gators began to make a comeback. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created an Alligator Management Program in 1980. Its major objectives are to implement alligator harvest programs under the concept of sustained annual harvests while optimizing the economic, aesthetic, and ecological values of alligators as a renewable natural resource. By this the Commission hopes to provide incentives for conservation of not only the alligator, but also the wetland ecosystems they inhabit. (2005 Statewide Alligator Harvest Training and Orientation Manual.) Each year locations are selected for sportsmen (both resident and non-resident) to take up to two gators per permit. You must be 18 years or older to apply for a permit and must not have any convictions relating to crocodilians for 5-10 years prior depending on the violations. A Florida hunting license is not necessary, however, all appropriate tags and licenses must be obtained.
The desire for hunting is joined by a yearning to be in places where hunting is done. But remote, wild bastions of nature are dwindling. Today’s world is increasingly busy and loud and the ambient scents are diesel and fast food. Those of us who cherish being surrounded by wilderness, her smells of nature and wildlife, and her night sounds and frequent animal sightings, feel a great loss. Humanity becomes less human when we stray too far from nature. Hunters are often on the frontlines of sustaining and renewing nature because many of us who do not have that tradition are too busy to be involved. So many of our wild places are bulldozed over to make new subdivisions and ballparks. These are not of themselves bad things, but we must not forget or destroy our wilderness heritage.
There is a code that keeps honorable hunters tracking animals for miles so as not to leave an animal wounded and wasted. It is the difference between full use of a sustainable resource such as wildlife hunting and poaching. I grew up in a part of Africa where hunting was legal and self-sustaining. Money from hunting paid for a well-trained Game Warden corps, which kept poaching to a minimum and allowed wildlife to flourish. As a result, my early years were lived in sight of huge herds of zebra, graceful giraffe, plenty of lion and leopard, elephants, and hosts of other animals. Then, well-meaning but misguided, people managed to ban hunting and in short order as a direct result there was mass slaughter of animals. This devastated the livelihoods of many and ruined the miracle of the animals for generations perhaps forever. Poaching is indiscriminate in its destruction of wildlife and habitat and often the humanity that surrounds it. Real hunters enjoy pitting themselves against the wiles of nature and honor the creature by killing it as cleanly as possible then using the resources wisely. They also are selective in their choice of animals and respect the limits set by law. When this is done, wildlife becomes a sustainable resource that allows hunters and non-hunters alike the opportunity to enjoy animals in a natural setting. It provides for many supporting industries such as taxidermy, restaurant and housing, forestry and game personnel, travel writing; the list goes on.
In Florida, gators had nearly been eradicated before strong conservation laws were passed. Now, the return of the gators has been well accomplished. But as the population of Florida grows, the combination of thriving gators and man’s encroachment into the gators habitat is causing increased attacks by gators. Part of the mission of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, (http://www.MyFWC.com/) is to protect these two predators from one another. The hunting of gators is part of the means of control as is the relocation of gators that have become too aggressive. The Florida wildlife Commission tries to inform the public about gators. They especially caution not to leave children or pets near water alone. Gators have been found in backyard ponds, streams, ditches, canals, pools and golf courses. They are active at night but can be found swimming in daylight.
In order to keep track of the numbers of gators taken very strict rules exist. These include tagging the gator immediately after killing it, reporting the kill and the details prior to processing and returning unused tags to the licensing body. It even requires one to report the intended use. Frankly, should I ever bag a gator, “personal consumption” will not be on MY form! I know the nebulous “they” say gators are good eating, but watching a friend skin a croc way back when put me off that delicacy. Alligator meat taken from the Holey Land, the Everglades and Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Areas may not be sold. Also, meat for sale from other places must be in tamper proof packages and correct documentation kept. Manufactured goods may be sold, but again proper records must be kept. This is so you can’t kill that old neighborhood pet gator and sell it without getting caught. The final straw is that no person may sell stuffed itty-bitty critters less than three feet long. I mean, really, what else am I gonna hang over the mantel with Christmas coming on. And think what you could do with it for Halloween. Those little kids coming up the dark path and just as they ring the doorbell you pull the gator, attached to a string, towards them. The possibilities are endless. Seriously, protecting young animals is a critical part of maintaining our natural heritage. There is a reason for the rule of not taking the very young gator. A friend told me he had purchased one on a childhood trip to Florida and enjoyed it for many years. The sale of novelty baby gators was only one of many things that led to over use of these natural resources and eventually a need for laws that protect the alligator population.
The Florida Airboat Association, which Phil chairs, is a group of manufacturers, service, charter and ride organizations, and family clubs. The Association was founded in 1994 and is dedicated to conservation of natural resources, preservation of sportsmen’s rights and the promotion of boating safety. This is an active group that went beyond their mission and was involved in hurricane rescue after Katrina. The airboat association mobilized over 100 airboaters from Florida and other states, and in New Orleans alone assisted in evacuation of patients and medical staff from three major hospitals. Additional groups rescued people from rooftops and attics and countless communities. The number is estimated to be in the thousands according to Captain Phil in an article on the website http://www.flairboat.com/ These are the kind of people you want around you in an emergency. Far more than sportsmen, they are people who are fully involved in the game of life.
Other involvement airboaters have in public service includes lake cleanups, crab trap removal, search, rescue and recovery, and various charitable events. A code of ethics has been written and circulated. In addition, the Florida Airboat Association has a committee working on safer air boating activities and have endorsed the use of automotive type mufflers on board. This group is doing its part to maintain the sport’s integrity and longevity.
By Bobbi Buchanan, Jetsetters Magazine Arkansas Correspondent.