Shooting an Alligator
Life brought us to South Carolina; the collapsed real estate market enabled us to buy 16 acres of rural lowlands for pennies on the dollar; and Centex Corporation's plan to build 64 houses became ours to build one house next to a man-made pond. The land has a wild feeling and we had been warned about the fire ants, insects, and snakes. But nobody told us about the alligators.
Deborah had once seen something skimming slowly under the pond's surface and had thought, that's a long, funny fish. One evening at sunset, when the nightly din of insects and birds was beginning, Deborah was sitting at the edge of the pond, her toes in the water, when the long, funny fish emerged like a primordial nightmare. The jaw, the scales, the pointed tail, the dead remorseless eyes locking onto hers -- it was an alligator. And no more than three feet away.
Deborah started stammering incoherently like a comic character, "It's an ahhhhh, ahhhhh, ahhhh." She had the presence of mind to flee but since then her dreams, waking and sleeping, are haunted by the alligator. She bought binoculars to study the pond from afar.
That night our education in alligators began on the internet. We learned that our area of South Carolina is home to lots of alligators, perhaps hundreds of thousands. We learned how they lunge from still water with the speed of a major league fastball to capture their prey, then drag it, spinning, into the water to drown. Later they drag the carcass ashore to dine. We learned that our gator (we named him Alfred), at about four feet, wasn't statistically likely to attack an adult human unless it felt provoked. Or was hungry. Or was sick. Or was a female protecting her eggs. Somehow, we weren't reassured. And we learned that pets, small children, and the splendid blue herons that like to nibble at the pond's edge don't enjoy that same statistical safety.
Alfred had to go.
Our adventure into the regulatory quagmire of alligator riddance began with a call to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). After the inevitable dead ends and lost calls we learned that there are three regulatory pathways by which we can rid ourselves of Alfred -- all with regulatory chapter and verse that make it all but impossible to legally dispatch Alfred.
- Private Lands Alligator Program. For hunting alligators on private land from September 1 through October 15. No rim-fire weapons or shotguns and only from thirty minutes before sunrise until thirty minutes after sunset.
- Nuisance Alligator Depredation Permit. Only contracted agent trappers may capture specific problem alligators that are longer than four feet and exhibit aggressive behavior toward humans or domestic animals, are habituated to people, show symptoms of debilitating illness or injury, or inhabit recreational waters intended primarily for swimming.
- Alligator Hunting Permit. Awarded annually to 300 lottery winners who apply from May 1 through 11:59 p.m. June 1 for one alligator tag in one alligator management unit between 2nd Saturday in September and 2nd Saturday in October.
We called Bill, a state-licensed control agent recommended by the SCDNR. He charges $150 to come out for a nuisance gator. When Bill arrived, Alfred was underwater and nowhere to be seen. Our conversation with Bill did nothing to allay our concerns. Bill explained that getting Alfred could be a protracted job because he would drive out only if we called him when Alfred was actually visible. Of course Alfred spends a lot of his life underwater. Bill explained that if he were busy on another job he couldn't come out then anyway. He repeated that alligators under six feet are unlikely to attack an adult human. Perhaps. But to a victim who survives, what thin consolation to know it was an unlikely attack.
Bill liked alligators. The bouquets he threw at Alfred included, "Alligators are really misunderstood. They're pretty docile animals. You probably don't have much to worry about."
Deborah asked, "So we should live right next to him until he grows to be six feet, and then get concerned?"
Roland added, "Alligators are predators. Alfred's gonna have to eat in order to get to six feet. In the meantime what about our dogs? What about children who come to visit?"
"Oh I wouldn't let pets or kids loose around any pond that's got a gator."
Deborah asked, "Are you going to shoot it?"
"Yes. But first, I'll immobilize it on land and measure it."
"How do you do that? With a net?"
"No, that's not legal. I'll bait a hook with a strong line and reel him in."
Roland said, "I should just shoot it myself."
Bill said, "You're not licensed! You know old man Stalvie's lake down the road? Everybody knows he shoots gators but he's never gotten a permit. Nobody knows how he gets rid of the hides and meat. There's regs about that."
"Yeah, but his lake is open for fishing and swimming two days a week. He's doing a public service."
Bill said darkly, "Well, if he ever gets caught..."
The conversation was taking on a surreal quality. We forgot to ask Bill if he would actually throw Alfred back into the pond if he measured less than four feet.
George Orwell was once a police officer in colonial Burma. In his great 1936 essay, "Shooting an Elephant," he describes the pressures from his ruling-class brethren as well as the "watchful yellow faces behind" that impelled him, against his instincts and wishes, to shoot a man-killer elephant. But for all of his internal conflicts as he made a mess of the shooting, Orwell knew that the full force of the English government was behind him.
Unlike Orwell in 1936, we know the law on the side of a primordial beast with a brain the size of a grape. Not only are alligators not endangered, but across the South they are an epidemic. But to the government of South Carolina, Alfred is the potential victim and we are the predators who must be restrained. It's a disproportionate war. Alfred will not apply to the state or measure anything's height before his 80 razor teeth clamp down.
We are alone on our land, with a government that has written pages of tangled laws devised to protect abundant prehistoric predators more than their potential human prey. The bureaucrats who wrote those laws were not terrified by Alfred in the gathering dark, nor are they building a house close to his murky digs.
When Roland next sees Alfred this is what he will not do: He will not have a tape measure. He will not attempt to wrestle Alfred ashore to immobilize him. He will not call a licensed agent trapper in hopes that he'll arrive before Alfred re-submerges. He will not know whether his state-issued 30-day nuisance depredation permit has expired. He will not enter the lottery in hopes of winning a hunting permit for the second Saturday next September. He will not notice whether it is between September 1 and October 15 nor whether it is thirty minutes before sunrise until thirty minutes after sunset. Roland will do nothing intentionally "pursuant to permits and under conditions established by the department in accordance with state and federal law."
Here is what Roland will do: He will protect his family and other living things. He will fetch his rifle and take careful aim.
Deborah and Roland have been married for 34 years.