by Lesley Scott
We always remember our first.
The Charles Towne Landing Animal Forest in the 1970s was a new concept where native wildlife lived in large natural habitats. This attraction drew in thousands of tourists on the weekends and plenty of visitors during the week days. My job was taking care of baby animals as well as acting as a tour guide. With the acres of habitats, pointing out the wildlife was often necessary.
One muggy Wednesday, the flies were swarming at noon as I bottle fed my fawns --- Dominic, Penelope, Sport and Pretzel. The yellow deer flies gave me some painful bites. As I stood up to brush those pests away, two elderly women timidly approached, visibly shaken. The words I picked out sounded like: “Loose,” and “Alligator.” Everyone else was on their lunch break, so I scaled the split railed fence, ready to help.
I had never captured a loose alligator, but knew plenty about my favorite reptile. One of my many exciting chores was to pick up cans and bottles that tourists would toss into the Gator Pit. It was a waste of their time, as well as mine. The 11 and 12 footers didn’t like to move very much. I casually stepped over the tails of Bumble Bee and his two huge friends as I collected the trash. Sometimes one or two of them would open their beautiful golden eyes and look me square in the face. I felt like they knew I was harmless --- not that they were afraid of anything.
Bumble Bee and Company would not be the loose gator the ladies were getting so upset over. The big ones don’t like to burn up unnecessary energy. The small ones are much more active and aggressive. The two little gray haired ladies, school teachers, followed me as I made my way over to the gator pit. They stopped and told me he was just up ahead.
Sure enough, a six footer basked in the sun, stretched out across the pathway. Compared to the ones I was used to, he looked small. When I approached, he swung around with his head and his tail at the same time and it looked like his body cleared the ground. He stood up on his dumpy legs, trying to look bigger and the loud rumbling hiss came up through his entire body and traveled up my spine. There is no other sound like it in this world.
When I walked over to his left side, he spun around, hissing and snapping. Carefully, I “worked” him, hoping to tire him out enough to get my hands on him. A gator is like a battery --- exertion drains it down. So for the next twenty minutes or so, switching sides, teasing him, and being charged at was all I could think of at the time. It seemed like the thing to do.
The two school teachers became more animated and started begging me to be careful. I told them, “I know what I’m doing.” I thought I heard one of them praying. By this time, more tourists showed up and joined the growing crowd, snapping away with their cameras. I hoped I didn’t do anything stupid. Staying out of the gator’s way was a smart move on my part.
Soon, he seemed to settle down a bit and his lunges were getting half-hearted. Time for me to go to the next step. Moving around to his left side, I simply hopped onto his back. It felt like sitting on a suitcase. I moved my left hand under his throat and my right hand on the top of his jaw. Everyone gasped at the loud snap his jaws made before I clamped my hand down on his mouth. shut.The school teachers appeared to be horrified. I laughed out loud. This was so much fun!
Because the gator was worn out when I jumped on him, he didn’t go into that infamous “death roll” everybody knows about. A gator his size would probably sprain or even break my wrist or injure me in other ways. Okay, now I had him under control. How would I get him the fifty feet to the gator pit? The fence was about four feet high where he’d apparently climbed over to end up on the trail and me on top.
I am only five feet tall and weighed 97 pounds. How high can I lift this gator? He was at least six feet long, but most of it was tail, so he didn’t weigh a whole lot --- maybe thirty pounds? After some thought, I held his mouth shut with my left hand and slid my right hand under his belly. I lifted him high enough to get my knee underneath the highly pissed, but thankfully tired, alligator. I grabbed his tail best I could with my right hand as he rested on my knee.
Carefully and slowly, I stood up, balancing him on my hip. I heard the sounds of cameras clicking as I made my way over to the fence where I planned to heave him over into the gator pit. Once next to the fence, I had the challenge to somehow lift him above my waist to get him back inside. So far, he was being cooperative. All of that time I was teasing him luckily wore him out.
I inhaled deeply, pushed my knee upwards as high as I could and lifted him with both arms. I pushed hard and he tumbled across the fence, landing with a sloppy “smack” in the muddy water. Bumble Bee and the other large gators all blinked their eyes, but never budged. Gators are so darn cool!
I had just wrangled my first gator. Little did I know it was a skill I would use over the years. The last time I wrangled a gator was when I worked as an animal control officer at Folly Beach Police Department in 1998. The exhausted gator was legally measured at 10.5 feel. I was surprised at the time because he didn't seem that large. I guess I've been dealing with some larger ones. But we always remember our first!