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‘If you’re gonna get ‘et...’

Posted: January 4, 2018 10:37 a.m.
Updated: January 5, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Like a lot of eastern Georgians I 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. 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. I parked and immediately noticed no one but me was there. No rangers. No visitors. As I stepped out of my car I 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 the boardwalk about 40 yards out, I set my tripod up. That’s when 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 a gator in the wilds and it’s as close as I care to come. A few days later, it occurred to me that, had the gator made it onto the boardwalk, it could have cut me off from escape. That thought gave me a good case of goosebumps. 

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” of gators. 

Consider these baleful creatures emissaries from the distant past. They can claim to have lived on this watery planet for more than 150 million years and done something dinosaurs could not: avoid extinction 65 million years ago.

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 has studied gators for almost 40 years. He and I worked together at what is today’s South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. 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.

Wilkinson caught Big Bertha, at 9 feet 7 3/4 inches, the largest female gator ever caught on record anywhere. That record was broken in Florida 10 years later by one inch by not one but two gators caught the same day in Lake Apopka. Wilkinson caught both while working with a research team. “We named one Hillary and the other Tipper, not that we were being political 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’re 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 to hobble it. “The mouth is the first thing you get under control because that’s where they can do the damage.” 

The tail’s trouble too. A gator can slam you against a tree with it.

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-1. 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 near 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. When 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 fell 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 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? You’d think it’s a scary enterprise, yet Wilkinson said everything happens 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.”

Close to 40 years experience have honed Wilkinson’s approach to capturing gators. The only problem now, said Wilkinson, is “I’m getting slower. So I push younger boys in front of me. ‘You go do it.’ ”

Most are OK 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. “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 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 clamped her 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’s a glimpse of how you catch a gator. A warning is in order. Don’t try it. Leave it to the Gator Guy and other pros who know what they’re doing.

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