GATORS REQUIRE SPECIAL CAPTURE TECHNIQUES

by Whit Gibbons

July 30, 2017

I ran into Travis Ryan last week, and he reminded me of an unusual animal capture we made when he was a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab.

Travis is currently professor of biological sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. He was at his desk early on a Sunday morning when I came to him and said, “Hey. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.” As we poured our coffee, I said, “We’ve got a problem. Can you walk out back with me to see something?”

The “something” was an 8-foot alligator that the custodian had just told me about. It was in the courtyard. At the time, we had an 8-foot female alligator and a 12-foot male that we kept in a fenced-in pond and used for educational purposes. The male was named Stumpy because of his missing front foot.

“Can you come help me catch an alligator? You and I and the custodian are the only ones here this morning, and Mrs. Stump has escaped from the holding pen.” I outlined the plan. Our mission was to return Mrs. Stump to the pond inside the enclosure she had somehow escaped from. Travis accepted the mission.

Nearly every large alligator capture I have been involved with has been memorable in some way. Not surprising when you consider you’re trying to catch an enormous reptile with huge teeth, powerful jaws and a muscular tail that could break a person’s leg with one swipe. I’ve never met any wild animal that wanted to be captured, but an alligator expresses its displeasure with great authority. Nonetheless, it can be done with the proper techniques. We needed them that day.

Following established procedure, I had a long pole with a wire noose on the end, a large towel, duct tape and an assistant – Travis. The gator faced us and did not run, as if it were out to catch us instead of vice versa. Nonetheless, I advanced toward it and slipped the noose over its snout, pulling the wire taut.

The alligator lay there on the ground, staring at us. I handed Travis the pole, walked around to the gator’s side and tossed the towel over its head, covering its eyes.

The next step was to duct tape its mouth shut. Like many animals when the eyes are covered, gators usually remain motionless. “Usually” is the operative word because, just like people, wild animals are individuals. They don’t always do what’s expected of them.

After a moment of lying still, as if considering what our next move might be, the alligator levitated 2 feet off the ground and began rolling over and over like crocodilians do. The towel flew skyward and landed on my head, the noose slipped off the lower jaw and the alligator landed on its feet, ready to take us on. To Travis’s credit, he hung on to the pole and tightened the noose.

As I removed the towel from my own eyes, I saw with alarm that the noose was still around the gator’s mouth, but only its upper jaw, not the lower. This meant a snapping pair of jaws was in full operation. Somehow we managed to drag the gator back to the gate of the pond enclosure and wrangle it into the pond without getting bitten, slapped by the captive’s tail or attacked by the 12-foot male that watched us with interest from the center of the pond.

Once safely back out the gate, we finished our coffee and congratulated each other on a job well done. Or so we thought.

Until Travis reminded me, I had forgotten the final chapter of the story. The next day I appeared at his office door and said, “Hey, guess what? Turns out that wasn’t Mrs. Stump. She’s still in the enclosure. That was a wild alligator that had wandered up from the swamp. Let’s go get some coffee.”

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