When I bought my Queen Anne cottage-style house in Winter Park in 1997, an elderly neighbor knocked on my door and gave me this picture, taken 60 years earlier, of a very large alligator visiting the driveway of the house I had just purchased, a uniquely Florida-style house warming gift.
One of the most interesting of the exotic creatures that populate Florida, at least for this departing Westerner, has always been the alligator mississippiensis, the American alligator. When I first moved here and discovered they lurked in every lake and stream, it was culture shock of the first order. I had just come here from Washington D.C., remember, where the creepiest creatures generally haunted the halls of Congress.
In Florida, I would be sitting at my computer in the newsroom of NBC's WESH-TV, writing up a report on the latest governor's race or what-have-you and I'd hear the assignment editor yell to the pack of photographers slouching around the water cooler; "There's a gator under a Cadillac at Holler Chevrolet. Would one you dedicated young filmmakers get your butt out there? Now!"
The alligator exists only in two places in the world: the southern America states, and China, and the Chinese ones are much smaller. When the Spaniards arrived on Florida shores and saw these ancient monsters, they had only one, much smaller reference point. They called them el lagarto, "the lizard," and the Anglos gradually turned that into alligator, the name that stuck.
Their numbers were reduced by hunters until the 1970s when they became protected by federal statute. Nowadays when you call the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and ask them just how many gators there are in the state they always say, "Oh a million, million-and-a-half, something like that." The point being that there are so bloody many of them and they lurk in so many places--from golf course water hazards to backyard ponds--nobody really has any way of counting them all. We can say there are an average of 17,000 nuisance complaints about them in Florida each year, and about 6000 of them have to be removed or destroyed. There is now a legal hunt for alligators each year, but it destroys only about 100 of them.
Which means, at their astounding rate of reproduction, and with their continued protection by the federal government, alligators may soon outnumber humans in Florida. There have been 357 documented alligator attacks on humans in this state since 1947 and something like 20 people have died. In 2006, three women were killed by alligators in as many months.
I have a proposal to solve this problem that would benefit everybody. My proposal is a greatly increased hunting season. Alligator "harvesters" should be allowed to take, oh, say, half a million of them every year until it begins to look like there is a shortage, whatever the heck that means.
These harvestees could then fulfill their destinies: as beautiful handbags and shoes. With the increase in supply will come a decrease in price for the consumer, something I can really get behind. Besides, alligator is a natural fiber; totally organic; and it eats my fellow man when provoked. Excuse me, I have to go and make more room in my closet.
An old timer? Not if I can help it!