Through countless trips into the Glades with Freer over the eight years since she came to him as a volunteer, when she was just 14, Rivera has learned how to come up softly behind a wild alligator so as not to spook it with sudden noises, excess vibration, or sharp movements. She'll tell you gators are often as shy and retiring as they are fierce. And, she says, "They're basically pretty lazy."
"Lazy," in fact, is what Freer named the 26-year-old gator who lived in his living room for some years. "They make about as good of pets as snakes," he says. "A gator will come over and lay down next to you and open his mouth to tell you to feed him. But they all have different personalities. Some are really ornery." Still, he says, "an alligator in the wild can survive by eating as little as a single duck a year. He doesn't much want to eat you. In fact, kids around here have always gone swimming in lakes and streams. They just knew better than to swim at night when the gators are hunting."
Is Rivera ever afraid? She considers. "No. I'm not really afraid of alligators. But I'm scared to death of frogs." Freer once set up an aquarium full of frogs next to her desk, she says, in hopes she'd get over her phobia. No dice. "I cried every single day as long as those frogs were there."
I ask if I can come close and touch Rusty. Rivera nods, shifting her grip. "She can only see sideways, so come up a little from behind."
Rusty's skin feels cool and pliant, a little spongy, but not scaly or slimy. She seems illusively damp — she's not actually wet at all — and smells brackish and clean, of the swamp. Only the "scutes" on her back, the ridges of bone sometimes called "hornback," feel hard — but these are pliable too; they wobble under your fingers. A triumph of textures and color, the gator's hide is a gorgeous and intricate weave of creams and smokes and blush-pinks on her smooth belly and a moonscape of rougher, rocky, gray-browns on her back and tail. The skin around her mouth is acutely sensitive to vibration.
It's that variety of texture, of delicacy and pliability, that has made the Florida alligator's skin so valuable on the world market. By 1902, 60,600 gator skins were trafficked annually in Florida, selling for about ten cents a foot. By the 1960s, so many gators had been taken in Florida that the population was endangered. Today, Florida produces around 46,000 gator skins a year, along with 624,000 pounds of meat, from farms and wild harvest. The skins sell for about $25 a foot, although prices fluctuate from year to year, and the meat for about $5 a pound. Annual revenue from farmed meat and hides has risen to about $6 million since Florida alligator farming became legal in 1986, and total gator revenue (not including tourism, licenses, and permit fees) has peaked at almost $16 million. Because Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana hide market hard, wiping out farms and scattering gators into the wild, the sale of Florida skins in 2006 and 2007 has been especially brisk.
Rivera points out the flaps of flesh covering the alligator's ears and her third eyelid, the clear nictitating membrane; it slides sensuously across the alligator's pupil, like a transparent veil being drawn across a window. The alligator shares this membrane with chickens and sharks (we have a vestigial remnant of pinkish flesh in our own eyes' inner corner). The gator's eye is the color and shape of a sun-ripened olive, now gold, now green. Up close, it's patterned abstractly, like a leaf seen under a microscope. Rusty has a valve at the back of her throat that she can close to keep from drowning even while she drowns her prey; she can seal her nostrils by contracting her nasal muscles. When she dives, the valves and flaps make her water-tight. She's perfectly self-contained.
All animals, philosopher John Berger has written, share elemental qualities of existence. We are born into the world, gator and human alike. We hear, we smell, we feel the warmth of sunlight on skin. We mate and raise our young, and at length we die. The pattern connects all creatures, including those we perceive as strange, as irredeemably Other. Looking at Rusty up close, it's clear why her kin were hunted almost to extinction — a pretty, pliant, valuable hide married to a face familiar only in nightmares; 40 pairs of hollow, conical teeth; the classically alien eye with its slit pupil, an eye that neither recognizes you nor returns your gaze. She's an animal to inspire awe, fear, repulsion. Unless you're one of the Gator People, she's a hard beast to love.