Thinning the herd

The battle between man and beast gets kicked up a notch

A few years back, my father and I were playing golf on a course just west of the point where you can't tell that Florida's panhandle has become southeastern Alabama. (Seriously, we should just march into places like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and claim them in the name of the Sunshine State, at least until the next bad hurricane season; then we can claim that the annexation paperwork wasn't properly filed and leave the storm-magnet area to its own devices.) Things were moving along briskly until about the 10th or 11th hole, where we found four carts' worth of black-socked tourists backed up at the tee box, jabbering animatedly.

We asked what was the problem.

"There's an alligator on the fairway!" came the breathless response.

Pop and I rolled our eyes at each other and asked if we could play through, partly because we've both played in close proximity to plenty of gators and partly because the way we were playing that day, there wasn't much chance either of our tee shots was going to hit the fairway. Amazed that we would go into battle with a bloodthirsty dinosaur armed with a couple of 3-woods, the parties assented. My dad's shot sailed nicely up and out to the middle of the dogleg, right where the monster was reputed to be (mine went left into a stand of trees); we hopped into the cart and drove up to his ball, keeping our eyes peeled for the giant lizard.

We spotted it smack in the middle of the fairway, about 10 yards short of Pop's lie.

It was about 28 inches long.

I liked alligators before that day — as symbols of Florida's wildness, as time-travelers from before the African apes first stood upright to see over some tall grass, as intriguingly alien creatures, so different from most others.

(And listen, if you walk your Pomeranian next to a pond or canal anywhere in the South, you're too stupid to have pets in the first place.)

But I fell in love with alligators when I realized that some non-Southerners might be terrified of 'em, and that realization led me to wonder if the idea of 9-foot carnivorous reptiles might actually be keeping some folks from visiting our fine state.

Now, whenever I see a postcard with a picture of a gape-mouthed gator on it, my heart soars. I wish every postcard had a picture of a gape-mouthed gator on it. Preferably with a few dangling shreds of clothing Photoshopped into its maw.

Alligators were officially listed as an endangered species in 1967, then removed from the federal register 20 years later, but they've remained under state protection ever since. There is a brief alligator-hunting season in Florida, but hunters are only allowed two gators per permit, and it's illegal for property owners to kill "nuisance alligators" themselves; they have to contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which contracts trappers who, more often than not, relocate the animals to less populated areas rather than kill them.

In the wake of a September review of its apparently wildly successful management program, however, the commission is considering relaxing its gator-related restrictions. In the next few years, the species may be downgraded to the status of game animal, which will likely lead to longer hunting seasons and larger bag limits. The commission is also looking at making it lawful for lay folk to dispatch nuisance gators that threaten their own property.

Now, you might think that declaring open season on nuisance gators might seem horrible to a gator-lover like myself.

But actually, I think it sounds like a fabulous idea. I'm all for it.

The way I see it, it's an opportunity for alligators to do more than frighten potential tourists into spending their vacation time on a cruise or Costa Rican beach rather than coming to Florida. It's an opportunity for them to start thinning out the population of idiots who've already made themselves at home here.

I mean, come on. Our state can be a place of beauty and culture, but it's also a haven for losers and freaks, the uneducated and the irresponsible. It's a home to bad ideas and hasty decisions.

Like, say, the bad idea of exterminating that 6-footer out there under your deck your own damn self and the hasty decision to go ahead and do it before your wife gets home or your Milwaukee's Best buzz wears off.

Sure, we'll lose a few gators to levelheaded homeowners who happen to actually know how to use their firearms, and I think any law should include the requirement that anyone who kills a nuisance gator must deliver the meat to a local homeless shelter or other free-food distribution point. But for every citizen who calmly goes inside, gets his rifle and dispatches the beast after being menaced, there'll be a dozen dudes who take after the man-sized reptile out by their dock with a Zippo and a bottle of vodka or a bandana with a rock in it or their bare hands.

And really, who do you think is gonna win a fight between three yards' worth of armor-plated killing machine and a drunk guy in a wifebeater with an oven mitt?