Alligator mississippiensis, almost wiped out thanks to the hide industry by the 1960s, has rebounded so avidly that it was removed from the Federal Endangered Species List in 1977 (these days, the alligator is classified as a "species of special concern"). Florida alligator management has taken aggressive steps to regulate gator hunting, farming, and nuisance control. The programs are touted as one of the most successful wildlife management programs in U.S. history. "We've had some degradation of habitat and loss of habitat, of course," Hord says. "But we've been monitoring the population of alligators here very closely. Alligators are a tolerant, adaptable animal. And we have a tremendous amount of public land in Florida that's safe for alligators. Our hunting programs are sustainable programs."
In her 1991 essay about alligators, "The Eyelids of Morning," naturalist and poet Diane Ackerman speculated that wildlife conservation programs like the one in Florida are at root a kind of talisman — less a realistic necessity than a brand of magic to ward off the evil eye of a beast whose long claws dig into our deepest fears. But the Florida gator conservation agenda, on a practical level, appears to be working, creating an elegant loop in which wild eggs collected from nests hatch out and stock farms, hunting licenses are restricted, and the regulation of hide and meat sales is a burdensome program of paperwork and tags. The illegal meat trade and most poaching in this environment becomes difficult.
"The poaching we're seeing has really changed over the years," says Steve Steigler, of the state's Alligator Management Program. "Now, people are poaching for tail meat and trophy heads, stuff for their personal use. And they're poaching eggs; we find nests that have been emptied every year when we go out. But there's no value in a poached hide. They're just too difficult to sell."
So the native population of gators thrives, at least in moderation: no longer endangered and not particularly dangerous — unless you get too close.
At Everglades Alligator Farm, Rusty's animal magnetism draws a parade of tourists deep into the Glades, keeping the farm from sinking into financial mire. This farm, along with Bob Freer's Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue, down the road, is the central hub of South Florida's gatormania, a hybrid tourist attraction, educational facility, and gator-growing business where Jeanette Rivera and a dozen other staffers raise eggs and hatchlings to sell to farms or lend to schools and universities for research. Fifty-odd gator farms like this one operate in the state. Some, like Patty and Allen Register's Gatorama in Palmdale near Lake Okeechobee, raise gators from pampered, palm-sized pups in lightless, homemade grow-out pens, where they're kept quiet and fed on a fancy mix of vitamins, grains, and chicken to make their skins extra supple. Once they reach four or five feet in length, they're harvested for meat and skins. Patty sells the steaks on the internet, and Allen trucks the hides off to a tannery in Sebring. Other farmers work as meat-processing facilities for gator nuisance trappers, who get to keep any earnings from the Fido-munching monsters hauled out of backyard canals. Everglades Alligator Farm takes an approach less likely to raise the hackles of lizard lovers, partly because Bob Freer is a committed animal ecologist, partly because an ex-schoolteacher and her husband own the place.
Deborah Thibos looks and talks like the elementary schoolmarm she was when she moved to Florida with her husband, Charles, to become an alligator farmer. The Thiboses, Deborah admits, "knew nothing about animals" when they bought the business in 1991. "This was my husband's third midlife crisis," she says. When Charles Thibos visited a gator attraction with his son during a trip to Florida, he inexplicably fell in love with the gnarly creatures. At home, he lobbied Deborah to buy Everglades Alligator Farm, which happened to be for sale. "I was totally against it," Deborah says. "I told him he was insane." Today, they own 2,000 gators, assorted native crocs, shelves and shelves of snakes in glass aquariums ("but no venomous snakes — I won't allow it," Deborah says), turtles, tree frogs, and dozens of other critters.
"This place was a mess when we bought it... or maybe I should just say it was very, very primitive," Deborah says. "The people who worked here were living in buses and trailers. And then a year after we moved here, we were hit by Hurricane Andrew, and every structure we had was destroyed."
Freer "just drove up one day and said he owned alligators and knew how to handle them, and he was interested in working for us," Deborah says. She credits him with saving the farm after Andrew. Freer helped the Thiboses rebuild from scratch, putting in 18-hour days.