The lowly, ugly alligator is an American success story. An endangered species that was threatened with extinction all the way into the late 1980s, it has made such a comeback that there are now millions of the scaly reptiles. So many that they’re considered a nuisance.
“Gators,” as American alligators are sometimes called, now thrive in a hospitable habitat: the swamps and wetlands of the southeastern United States. The gator is even the mascot of the huge University of Florida in Gainesville.
You’ll see them - the real, grouchy ones, not the mascots - sunning on hillocks in the vast Everglades, the wetlands that stretch clear across southern Florida.
Prized for their hides, these menacing reptiles with big eyes and nostrils and bigger teeth had almost been wiped out by poachers and a shrinking habitat as Florida’s fast-growing cities drained the swamps in which alligators once thrived.
It takes a muscular man like this fellow to subdue and hold up a very unhappy alligator. (Carol M. Highsmith)
But according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are now an estimated 1.3 million gators in the state - some of them drifting along South Florida’s many canals, and others snatching the occasional egret, swan, or pet dog right out of people’s backyards.
The gators float nearby, looking for all the world like logs, then rush out of the water on their stubby legs - at the surprising speed of 11 kilometers an hour - to nab their startled prey. These frightening reptiles, which can reach four-and-one-half meters long and 450 kilograms in weight, then drag their victims back underwater and roll and twist them until they drown.
Every year, a few human swimmers, dog-walkers, or those who dangle their feet enticingly off a canal dock suffer the same fate.
No wonder these cold-blooded beasts - in both physiology and outlook on life - are the stars of shows put on for tourists. Florida’s native Seminole Indians, and muscular young men in theme parks such as Sunken Gardens in Saint Petersburg, wrestle the meanest-looking gators you can imagine - lifting the thrashing reptiles out of a tank and holding them up for tourists to take pictures.
Alligators are a long way down the evolutionary tree when it comes to intelligence. Their brains are the size of a large bean. But they’re said to be smart by reptilian standards.
Still, one gator-wrestler we met told us he could go after an alligator a thousand times in a row, and the gator would think he was a new threat every time.
He isn’t, but the gator is to him.