Rob Hiaasen was one of five people killed Thursday at The Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland. Hiaasen was a reporter for The Palm Beach Post from 1987 to 1993. This story originally ran Oct. 2, 1992.
Last week's news is this week's alligator rug.
The tale of Al E. Gator, the gator trapped at Palm Beach International Airport, is the latest story of runway and runaway gators at the West Palm Beach airport.
In 1978, a 12-foot gator named Old Sam was trapped by wildlife officers at Palm Beach International Airport. Airport workers said Sam was either 300 pounds or 500 pounds. He lived there for either 20 years or it could have been longer.
Then Al, the partially blind, 12-foot 5-inch alligator, was trapped, slaughtered and turned into a rug last week. Airport workers said Al had been at the airport for more than 60 years. The thing must have been older than 80 and weighed more than 1,200 pounds, gator watchers said.
"I don't think it weighed that much, and I don't think it was that old,"
said Jim Huffstodt of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "The legend probably just grew."
Although skinned a bit, the legend of Al E. Gator is a high-profile reminder of a growing problem. Crocodilians and South Floridians are running into each other a lot these days. The game commission had 3,400 alligator complaints last year and trappers killed more than 1,000 of those gators.
Alligators-- like sharks-- have a monster image. Both are commercialized; both are melodramatized; but both can be dangerous. Since 1948, six deaths in Florida have been linked to alligators and more than 100 people in the state were reported attacked by gators.
"Normally, gators are not a threat to humans," says Lt. John Kirkland,
the commission's regional nuisance coordinator. "But if you feed him, you
have created a problem."
Alligators are not an exotic or endangered animal. Strict laws more than a decade ago helped the gator flourish after poachers nearly extinguished
Florida's unofficial mascot. Biologists say Florida could have more than 1
1 million gators. Many zoos don't accept gators captured in the wild because they are a dime a dozen. Gators come in a zoo's starter kit.
People don't have to go to a zoo to see a gator. Urban sprawl has wiped out much of the gator's natural habitat, leading gators into subdivisions,
canals, storm drains, carports, man-made lakes, golf courses, and the Palm Beach International Airport. Take Al.
"He was the king of the pond," says trapper Lee Kramer, who caught Al.
Kramer lassoed, hoisted and shipped the gator to a Clewiston
slaughterhouse soon after the capture. He never weighed the gator. Kramer, a Delray Beach trapper, says Al might have been 800 pounds -- not 1,200 pounds. He did confirm the gator was nearly blind.
While we're at it, how would anybody know if the gator was hanging around the airport for 60 years? The airport hasn't been there 60 years. And Al's age is anyone's guess. He was no spring gator, but 80 years old might be wrong.
Huffstodt says there is a way of telling a gator's age-- something about
cutting its leg bone and counting markings like rings on a tree. The only
thing people were counting on with Al was his hide.
Al's age and weight aren't the issue. What ticked people off was his cause of death. Hundreds of people from Okeechobee to Oklahoma have called game officials to comment, complain and hiss about the killing of the alligator.
Old Sam, for the record, was released in the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in 1978.
"For the record, we did not kill the alligator. We called the appropriate authorities," airport spokesman Jerry Allen says about Al E. Gator. "I was
hoping someone would take him out to Lake Okeechobee or something." In seven years of working for the airport, Allen has never been so well- known. Strangers stop him on the street and ask about that gator and he says he answers the same way: "I did not kill the alligator."
Kramer did-- by lethal injection. He's allowed to. After Al was found on a taxiway, the airport called the game commission, which called Kramer. He has a contract with the state to kill gators that are considered dangerous. Kramer has been taking gators from canals, storm drains, subdivisions and Palm Beach International Airport for 10 years.
The latest job was a mercy killing, Kramer says. Al was going blind, and a blind gator has little chance in the wild. The gator was a safety hazard
because he could mosey onto runways.
"That gator could take out an airplane if it landed on him," Kramer says.
But Al's story and legend aren't over. Had this been a 3-foot young
gator, its capture and death wouldn't have been news. But this was an old man gator, and human nature wants survivors to be protected, honored and even cheered. Why else would anyone like Jimmy Connors?
People liked Al E. Gator-- people who never heard of him until last week. "I got real annoyed when I saw he was made into a rug," says Robert
Callahan, executive director of the Dreher Park Zoo. "Had we been notified, we would have tried to find a suitable place for it."
In other words, Callahan says, Al would have been a hit at the zoo. Dreher Park Zoo already has an alligator exhibit, but another one wouldn't require major renovation or expense, zoo officials said. The zoo would have considered paying Kramer's trapping expenses, Callahan says. But the zoo apparently was not an option.
"We knew better than to call. The zoos have all the alligators they need," Kramer says. But Al E. Gator was not just any alligator, supporters say.
"Maybe there could be exceptions," says Terry Wolf, wildlife director at
Lion Country Safari. Legally, of course, the gator was the property of the
trapper, Wolf says.
Still, "I don't know. . . . If I was there, I could have said something.
It happened real quick, and there was no discussion."
PEOPLE STILL CALLING
Lion Country Safari has its complement of gators. Wolf isn't saying he
could have given Al a home, and he isn't blaming Kramer for doing his job. He just thinks it's a shame there aren't preserves for old captured animals.
True, but the state is running out of places for wild animals to go, Kramer adds.
Meanwhile, back at the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, people are still calling about Al.
"Most of the people I work with are on the alligator's side. People just have a special place in their hearts for old mature alligators. So do I," says Dan Dunford, the commission's regional director. But we have these policies, he says.
The state does not release gators into the wild because they are territorial. They will return to where people have fed them. Crocodiles, whether they are fed or not, return to familiar ground even when moved 50 miles away, Dunford says.
In the last week, the state has issued permits allowing four gators to be removed from residential areas. In each case, the trappers have 90 days to get rid of the gators. Mary Simms can't wait.
She and her granddaughter, 13-year-old Kathleen Smith, live in Sun Valley -- a housing community west of Boynton Beach. Kathleen found a mutilated duck Sunday at the edge of one of the man-made lakes in Sun Valley.
"We didn't think much of it, until I looked out my back yard and saw this huge alligator swimming behind my house," Simms says.
Many small children live in the neighborhood and walk around the lake, poking sticks in the water. Some parents are not letting their children near the lakes until a state-hired trapper captures the gator the residents named Betty Crocker.
"I hear about alligators attacking dogs and small children," Simms says.
"It would be fine with me if all them were gone." Gone. As in rugs.
Read other stories from Rob Hiaasen from his time at The Palm Beach Post: