Michael's Dispatches

The Green Gator Phenomena

May 17, 2006

Boys at the sheep market in Mosul, Iraq.

Suwannee River, Florida

It’s all over the news: Alligators have been eating people in Florida again. Gators get a bad rap from bad press, making this a good moment to test your knowledge of a living dinosaur. One that has been on earth in the same form for over 200 million years.

Question: What color are alligators?

Most people seem to know they are green. Practically every stuffed alligator toy or piece of artwork, including those around the University of Florida football stadium, home of the Florida Gators, and a place of higher learning, show gators are green. Verdant, even. Many Florida license plates show green gators. Even the state government cast its vote for green. And those little gators on the golf shirts are green; industry sells the idea.

The rare person who knows that all this “green gator” art, press and business are all wrong, knows something else about gators. In real life, they are not green.

So what color are they?

Through the years I have actually asked hundreds of people about this. Some of those who’ve actually seen gators up close have asserted that gators are brown.

I have posed the loaded question several times while standing close to alligators and people. I will ask, “What color is it?” They will look, and generally say something like, “Green.” And then pause, “Oh, dark, dark green. Very dark green.” This is psychologically profound, because it shows that people are using an implanted false memory instead of their own eyes. No wonder the gators cannot escape their press.

And for those who sensed the loaded question, gators are not brown any more than they are green.

Gators are black.

They are black when wet, grey when they are dry and sunning. That said, on one very rare occasion, I did see a gator that looked brown. I photographed the gator and it looked brown in the photo. There are also very rare albino alligators, although I have never seen one.

Some years ago, I visited a herpetologist at UF and asked him if gators vary in color in different parts of the country. He said no, they are black when wet, grey when dry, and he chuckled while saying that nearly everyone seems to think they are green, or maybe even brown. There are some uncommon occasions when algae might grow on a gator’s back and it might appear green. But not enough to explain the Green Gator Phenomenon, which is what I call this theory that if enough people say the same thing enough times it eventually becomes “true.”

I grew up in Florida, and there is not the slightest exaggeration in saying that I have seen thousands of alligators. Writing these words from the bank of the Swannee River, I’ll probably see one today.

Just after midnight on the Suwannee River.

I saw two small gators with my light at about midnight last night, but they were too far to get a good photo. My grandfather taught me how to call a mother gator. I caught dozens of gators and ate quite a few. (Note to law enforcement: I was a kid, that was many years ago, and it was fun. But I no longer catch gators, even when I feel tempted.)

When people eat gators, it never seems to make the news. But lately gators have killed three people, so it’s big in the news.

The State of Florida—where tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry—is quick to say that only 17 people have been killed by gators in Florida during the last 58 years. I am suspicious of this number, which somehow never seems to change despite the occasional story about man-eating gators. Media around the world have regurgitated the figure faithfully, but I have suspected for many years that someone is hiding the true body count. Before I get a wave of angry communiqués, or worse, whispers from the knowing who have proof of the “hidden-killer-gator-conspiracy,” I’ll admit the body count is not worth more than another minute on it, but I suspect –without substantiation –that my favorite state, Florida, pegs the body count low to avoid flushing the tourists. The State probably already has a press release with an excuse ready for the day when some pesky journalist figures out the real body count. After all, we are talking about gators; the attacks flash in the news and disappear.

That said, gators are not very dangerous. I’ll swim in Florida lakes and rivers without hesitation, and people should keep coming here. Gators nearly always leave people alone during the daytime, although they definitely will go for a dog. (Note: never tie a dog to a tree next to a lake or river in Florida. Gators are not very dangerous to people, but are nemesis to dogs. I saw a gator eat a cat.)

Down at Lake Alice in Gainesville, where I go often, there is a sign not to feed the gators. Like the grizzlies in Yellowstone: A fed gator is a dead gator. But people still go to Lake Alice and throw marshmallows to the little gators in there. I saw a marshmallow-conditioned gator in there the other day. It was black, and it was right there waiting to be fed, or for a dog or a kid to walk too close. Kids will get eaten. One kid was eaten a few years ago on a lake in Winter Haven precisely where I used to swim.

Just nearby is Paynes Prairie where, on a good day, during the dry season, a person might see more than a hundred alligators while standing in one spot. I’ve seen one excellent photograph hanging around Gainesville, taken from that same spot at night, and memory informs me that 233 sets of gator eyes can be seen glowing [I found it, there were 212 sets of eyes.]. The photographer shined a light to make the eyes glow. I’ll buy a copy next time I see it, and ask the photographer for permission to post it.

The artists and the press can say it another million times: that gators are green, but the wet gators will still be black, and the dry ones will be grey. And the gators that people feed, perhaps to get a photo, will approach people looking for a meal. They are not starving. Gators have fed themselves for more than 200 million years. They are incredible. They are dinosaurs!

I hope that these relatively rare attacks do not result in wholesale slaughter of gators. If a person uses caution, there is very little danger, even during this gator mating season.

Misunderstanding the nature of the beast is the root cause of a lot bad decisions. This “Green Gator Phenomena” applies to many current situations. For example, no matter what the press says, we are making tremendous progress in Iraq. And no matter what the press says, Afghanistan is a growing problem. Getting a lot of people to say otherwise won’t change the facts, but it might cause some to make bad decisions based on a totally wrong commonly held “truth.”

As for gators, here’s an excerpt of a chapter from Danger Close about the largest gator I ever killed:

FELONY SELF-DEFENSE

DURING THE SUMMER of my fourteenth year, I got a job clearing beaches and building docks around the lakes. In Florida, white sandy beaches next to a lake are not natural. The freshwater beaches must be constantly maintained or nature will reclaim what is hers. The edges of lakes that are not cleared are more akin to a jungle, with thick vegetation.

Thanks to innumerable depictions of white, sandy beaches and Mickey Mouse advertisements, there is a common misconception that alligators are endangered, or even rare, as if Florida were one big theme park. Let’s lay that misconception to rest. While Florida is a great place to live and vacation, gators reproduce readily, in quantity, and are found in great abundance throughout the state. Official estimates say there are more than a million gators in Florida, and I met lots of them. (I’m not talking about the football team.) The largest that I have seen appeared to be about fourteen feet long. There is nothing on which to base this estimate except my judgment; gators that large are not safe to approach with a tape measure.

I had seen one nearly devour our family dog, Schultz, who later had simply disappeared, and I suspect that he was eaten by a particular gator that was about six feet long. One problem with the people-gator relationship is that many people like to feed the gators, which is illegal. Gators are great hunters, and don’t need help finding food, but when people feed them, gators lose their fear of humans, and this leads to dogs being eaten, and people being killed. I once encountered an old man feeding a gator from a dock. He was tossing in marshmallows and the black beast was gobbling them down.

“Why are you feeding that thing?” I asked. “I swim in this lake!”

The old man just chuckled, kept tossing marshmallows, and answered, “I know which gators I feed, and I know to watch out for them. Go swim somewhere else.”

Well, nobody else knows which gators he feeds! And fifty years after the man is dead and buried, those gators may still be prowling around the lake, waiting for some kid to venture too close.

I saw gators practically every day. They looked frightening and occasionally, though not often, killed people. Children are the most vulnerable targets of the giant water lizards. To be devoured by a gator seems infinitely more frightening than to be killed in, say, a car crash. Maybe it’s because gators are so ugly, or because they lunge from the water, and that part of being killed by a gator involves drowning. Personally, I would rather be killed by a lion than a gator, but that’s just a matter of taste.

There I was, with my brother and our Boss, clearing out weeds for some

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rich people on the edge of the gator-infested Lake Hamilton, keenly aware of the danger present. When I say gator-infested, I mean that there were at least hundreds in Lake Hamilton, though few would be what I would call monster-gators. The place was grown over like a crocodile scene in a Tarzan movie. There was also an abundance of turtles and snakes. Since we found several snakes each day, we brought guns along for the false feeling of security they provided.

One afternoon, unknown to us, we were being stalked by a monster. We had cleared a working area in the lake that was about the size of a one-car garage, and had piled the water-weeds on the shore. The black gator was slowly moving in, the way I had seen them do many times as they stalked their prey.

Alligators are very powerful. A swat from a gator’s tail can break a man’s leg. Yet they stalk effortlessly, and with the grace of a housecat. They are masters of stealth and surprise. Even a monster gator can swim almost imperceptibly on the surface, barely rippling water. When it is close, it silently slips below the surface, leaving tiny ripples like those of a few raindrops hitting the surface as its eyes and nose submerge. When stalking, the gator is patient, slow, and silent. It slips in like a submarine, a black beast invisible in black water.

There were three of us working: the Boss, Billy, and I, and one of us was the intended victim of a gator that weighed hundreds of pounds and was over twelve feet long. Its leathery-looking back was hard as rock. They say that you can put a gator to sleep by rubbing its belly, but that’s a difficult trick if the gator is planning to put you to sleep by crushing your bones and filling your lungs with water. (And gators don’t really go to sleep; they pass out and will die if left in that position.)

This stalking gator had all the advantages. Its angle of approach was camouflaged with thick weeds, and we were working hard in the hot sun while watching mostly for snakes, not gators, which usually leave people alone— this being a noteworthy exception. Billy and the Boss were in waist-deep water working about ten yards apart from each other. I was about twenty yards away from the Boss and surrounded by weeds; Billy was between us. The scene looked like this:

Shore Line

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I had been swimming out into water that was above my head and diving down to the base of the weeds, maybe six feet down, pulling the cattails out by the roots, one by one. I found the base of the cattails by feel, keeping my eyes closed, because after only a few minutes of work, the otherwise clear water was silted to zero visibility. At the base of the cattail, I planted my feet on the bottom of the lake and pulled up the root. Some came easily while others seemed stuck in concrete. After pulling one out, if I had enough breath, I would feel for another and try to get it before surfacing. It was hard work, and marginally similar to pearl diving, though considerably less exotic.

Green, uprooted cattails floated on the surface with their white roots and little bunches of pink snail eggs attached to their sides. When I had gathered enough, I would swim to shore, pushing them in front of me, and throw them on the heap.

The Boss was about thirty years old and was the gator’s target; he drew the unlucky lottery ticket in one of life’s biggest games: survival. A violent, frenzied, bone-crushing finale was unfolding. When a gator grabs large prey, it seizes it in its jaws, and often violently spins underwater, drowning it.

The Boss waded a few yards through the weeds and murky water to fetch a rake where he had set it down only a minute earlier. The vegetation was so thick that the tools wouldn’t sink into the water.

Maybe the gator had been resting on the bottom, waiting, and maybe it had surfaced to take a look because the water was so murky.

As the Boss grasped the rake, he spotted the twelve-foot gator, only a foot from his hand.

He froze.

Eye to eye with death.

Just him and the gator. If the gator lunged. . . .

The Boss was standing in waist-deep water, so it was not possible to easily run away, and besides, at that range, even on land the gator would have him.

Billy and I were still oblivious. Even so, by the time we could get to the guns—and if we could manage to kill the gator without shooting the Boss— it would probably be too late.

The Boss backed up a couple of steps, then screamed as if he were being eaten alive. A man’s scream evokes a special chill, and I will never forget the sound the Boss made that day.

He skirted the gator, and began plowing through the water as fast as he could toward the shore. But gators are incredibly fast and agile in the water. To the Boss, the water must have felt thicker than jello, like he was in a nightmare and could not run fast enough because his legs would not work, as it slowed his escape and he screamed so horribly.

I was swimming in with a load of cattails when he screamed.

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I didn’t know what he was screaming about, but whatever it was, it was in the water. Maybe he had stumbled across a big cottonmouth snake, I thought, but I had never seen him panic over a snake.

I gulped some air, closed my eyes, and dove underneath the cattails, swimming to the shallow water where I stood and plowed through the water and weeds to shore. I crashed through the “jungle” on shore, branches scraping my arms and body.

Meanwhile, the Boss had actually made it to shore, and had started screaming “Gator! Gator! Gator! Gator!”

I made it to a shotgun and dashed out onto the dock, searching for the beast. Billy had made it to shore, too, and stood right next to me looking out over the water and weeds where we had just been.

And there it was.

“It’s huge!” I said to Billy, my voice quivering. Billy grabbed my arm. Adrenaline was in my veins and I was moving in for the kill. So was Billy.

Billy had his combination over and under 20 gauge shotgun/.22 rifle. I had a 12 gauge single shot. I opened the breach and unloaded the birdshot that was loaded for snakes, and loaded a rifled slug. I closed the breach and cocked the trigger with my thumb.

I pulled the shotgun to my shoulder and took a bead. It was only a few yards away.

Killing a gator was a felony, for they were still considered endangered. What a joke, I thought. They were about as endangered as rabbits. We were working illegally for the Boss who was the only adult in sight, but I didn’t think about the law. I was fourteen, what did I know about the law?

The Boss said, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

Billy was aiming, too, but we both hesitated at the Boss’ command.

We still had work to do, so we had to get back in the water. The choices seemed rather limited. The Boss could forbid us to kill it, and we would find new jobs. Or we could kill it and go back to work.

I looked over at Billy, then reacquired the bead and squeezed the trigger. Whamm! There was a sharp pain as the 12 gauge stock without a recoil pad slammed into my bare shoulder. Billy fired his two shots, water splashing high into the air like a geyser.

“Stop shooting!” the Boss screamed.

I was sure that I’d hit it, but when I’d fired, the monster had disappeared below the surface just before Billy shot. Billy and I reloaded and waited. Finally, it surfaced again, and I took a bead.

“Stop shooting!” yelled the Boss. “People will hear. Do you want to go to jail? I don’t! Stop shooting.”

I was looking straight over the barrel and my bead was on the gator’s eye, and my finger was squeezing and about to launch another slug.

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“Mike! I said don’t shoot! It’s already dead.”

My finger relaxed and I raised my cheek from the shotgun, keeping it ready on my shoulder. It looked dead. Kind of.

I lowered the shotgun and uncocked the trigger, and Billy did the same with his.

The Boss was afraid to get back in the water. So was I, and I wasn’t going back to work until I knew it was dead. Gators are very resilient. Billy proposed that he wade out into the water and hit it with a rake to make sure it was dead, while I covered him with the gun. After he confirmed that it was dead, we would pull it to shore by the tail. However, because of the angle I could not cover Billy from the dock. He would be in the line of fire. I would have to go with him in the water, and cover him with the over and under, since it had two shots (though, in retrospect, the 12 gauge would have been a better choice). The Boss did not try to stop us, and still seemed dazed by his close encounter with the giant reptile.

Rake-handles are pretty short, so Billy would have to get close. He knew that I was a good shot, but he was afraid that I would flinch and miss, or simply freeze if there were more drama. So was I. And though the word “shotgun” carries with it the suggestion of overwhelming, deadly power, an otherwise powerful weapon can feel like a BB gun in your hands at moments like this.

The fear was present in Billy’s voice when he said, “Make sure you shoot if it makes a move.”

“Okay,” I said.

I trained the shotgun on the gator, aiming at its eye. As security, I moved out into position first—perfect military procedure—not bad for a couple of teenagers, but through no design—it just seemed appropriate. I kept the shotgun pointed at its eye as I stepped through the water, praying that I would not trip and drop the gun. I was about fifteen feet away, easy striking distance from me to the gator and from the gator to me. Billy moved in, armed with only a rake.

“Are you ready Michael?” he asked from beside me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Be careful,” the Boss offered from the dock.

Billy kept his eye on the gator.

Billy reached out and hit the beast on the head with the rake and it instantly sprang to life. It jerked its head violently to the side, splashing water everywhere, and made a frighteningly loud hiss, mouth wide open, displaying lots of teeth. Billy was on his way out of the water at record speed.

“Bam!” I fired the shotgun, then clicked to the rifle, “pow!” Both seemed hits.

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I retreated so fast that I nearly ran out of my skin.

A few minutes later, the wounded gator tried to swim under the dock. I gave Billy’s gun back and grabbed the 12 gauge, and, putting the barrel of the shotgun a couple of feet from the top of its head, I squeezed the trigger Ka-whamm! Water splashed up all over the dock and drenched me. The blast left a hole about the size of a silver dollar behind and between its eyes. Game over. This time it was the gator that drew the short straw.

It took all three of us to drag it onshore. As close as we could measure, it was 12′3″ long. We axed off its tail and took it to our grandparents’ house.

Granny nearly had a fit. “Why, for heaven’s sake, did you shoot that gator?” she asked us.

“Self-defense, Granny!” Billy answered.

We skinned the tail, and she cooked some that night. She put the rest in the deep freeze, with all the turtles and fish, out in the utility room next to the Mason jars filled with squash, green beans, black-eyed peas and all the rest.

My next serious “gator encounter” happened at night with Richard White.

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 With brother Billy and the tail from the stalking gator.

This story is excerpted from my first book, Danger Close, a new edition of which is now in stock, shipping within 48 hours. Please click here for order information.

 

 

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