A baby alligator at the 2015 Gatorfest

Epitaph for an Alligator

With its display of mangled carcasses, is Gatorfest really the best way to honor the reptile?

Even dead, the alligator looked huge. It lay in the back of Larry Lawrence’s trailer, a leviathan, black armor pitted, serrated tail curled. But for its tightly shut eyes — and the wet, red bullet hole bored through its skull — it might have been alive. As volunteers watched, Lawrence pulled his truck down the gravel drive, past small alligator carcasses on the grass margin, and parked beneath the electric winch. On the other side of the chain-link fence an air horn blared, alerting visitors at the 2015 Texas Gatorfest that a new carcass had been brought to the roundup.

Mark Porter, the stout, silver-goateed owner of Porter’s Processing & Gator Farm, looked the body over with professional interest. “Now that’s a $300 gator,” he said. As Lawrence got out of the truck, Porter passed him the entry paperwork for the roundup and shook his hand. “I think that one might win.”

Visitors appeared on the festival bleachers, children pressing wide-eyed against the fence that separated them from the alligator. Young men moved aside the small carcasses. Others fastened a harness around the leviathan’s neck. Humming, the electric winch hauled the alligator up, foot by foot, the body rearing into the air like a dead dragon. The jaws lolled open to expose long yellow fangs, bloody water dribbling down its neck to spatter on the pebbles.

“He been around for a minute,” Michael Moore said, grinning. A cheerful older man in a volunteer shirt, he leaned against the winch pole, casually holding the control button. He pointed at the bulbous skin folds hanging from the alligator’s neck. “Look at that! Maybe 40, maybe 50 years old. An old man.”

Meat sizzled on a nearby grill. The sun beat down. The volunteers lowered the alligator back to the ground, stretched it out, and measured it. A whoop went up from the crowd: 12 feet 7 inches, the largest kill yet. Working quickly, the volunteers hauled the carcass back up onto Lawrence’s trailer. He drove away smiling. In addition to the money he made selling his catch to Porter, he’d won the roundup’s hourly $100 prize for biggest catch, and stood a good chance of winning the $1,000 prize for the longest alligator of the event.

More pickup trucks had lined up on the gravel path, their beds stuffed with dead alligators. The volunteers swarmed to the first of them, took hold of an alligator carcass and got to work for the next hourly competition.

2015 Little Gator Queen, Kenzie Taylor, at the Gatorfest Pageant
Leslie Boorhem Stephenson
The Little Gator Queen, Kenzie Taylor, who beat out the competition in the 2015 Gatorfest Pageant, poses for photos while sitting on top of a dead alligator.

The Great Texas Alligator Roundup is one of the most popular events at the Texas Gatorfest, an annual festival that lures thousands of people to the small town of Anahuac, proclaimed the Alligator Capital of Texas by the Texas Legislature in 1989. For a few days in September, they come for the country music blasting off the main stage, for the barbecue, the rides and the vendors. But most of all, they come for the alligators — adults and hatchlings, alive and dead, whole and cooked. The event touts itself as a celebration of the alligator in all its forms, where hunting trophies rub shoulders with education and cooking. It’s a spectacle that harks back to the days before unregulated hunting drove the alligators to the edge of extinction, before conservation efforts brought them back from the brink.

All of which makes Anahuac the perfect laboratory for a particularly thorny question: Are events like Gatorfest the best way to excite people about the Texas alligator?

Anahuac lies an hour east of Houston along I-10, on a vast swath of swampy floodplain cut by miles of fields, low marshes and bayous. Serving as the seat for Chambers County, with a history dating to the Texas Revolution, Anahuac trades on the ecological bounty of the marsh, drawing in sportsmen and birders. What it really advertises itself with, however, are its alligators.

Growing 13 feet or longer, with jaws that can snap shut with 300 pounds of force, the American alligator retains a folkloric menace, a primordial relic exploding from black waters to pull down unwary prey. It is the most common of North American crocodilians, with a historic range blanketing the Southeast. In Texas, the American alligator most commonly occurs in Jefferson, Chambers and Orange counties, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) estimates the combined population at 283,263 out of about 500,000 statewide. It is also the least aggressive of its family; despite its numbers, attacks on humans are vanishingly rare. Deadly aggression in alligators is so exceptional that in July the Houston Chronicle reported the state’s first human fatality in 200 years: an intoxicated 28-year-old in Orange, who shouted “Fuck that alligator,” prior to jumping into the water with an 11-footer.

In fact, alligators are considerably more sophisticated than their bloodthirsty reputation suggests. It’s true that adults are powerful predators, happily devouring anything that swims, runs or flies across their path. (On occasion, they also devour fruit.) They are also one of the few animals known to hunt with tools. A 2013 paper by behavioral ecologist Vladimir Dinets recorded alligators lurking beneath heron rookeries during nesting season, bodies submerged, sticks balancing on their noses. Birds that flew down to retrieve the sticks for their nests received a nasty shock.

Alligators have a softer side as well. Female alligators construct large nest mounds, which they guard until their eggs hatch, then break open to free the young inside. Sometimes they guard their offspring for months. In general, alligators live life at a slow tempo, passing the years according to strict seasonal rhythms: dormant in winter, territorial battles and courtship in the spring, laying and protecting their nests in the summer. Alligators live for about 35 to 50 years in the wild. Their growth slows, but never stops. According to TPWD records, the biggest recorded alligator killed in Texas was a 14-foot bull from Jackson County. Such an animal was likely 50 years old.

One factor in that long lifespan nearly proved the species’ undoing. Alligator hides are studded with bony plates called osteoderms, which protect them from attack. Tanned properly, however, the skin makes a fine, supple leather. In the early 19th century, a hunger for gator leather grew across the country, leading to intense hunting. Hides went toward boots, belts and saddles. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, alligator fat greased the wheels of cotton gins and steam engines. The industrialization of the leather trade in the late 1800s further fueled the boom. Hunters took alligators indiscriminately, including pregnant and nesting females. Habitat destruction exerted a harsh pressure of its own; forests were cut back, marshes drained and filled for pasture. By the 1950s, alligator populations had plummeted so low that biologists feared the species was damaged beyond repair. In 1967, the alligator was formally recognized as a federally endangered species. In 1969, Texas likewise placed them under strict protection. Eventually the alligator became one of America’s conservation success stories. They were removed from the endangered species list in 1987, and managing them fell to the states.

Zachary Smith at the 2015 Gatorfest in Anahuac
Leslie Boorhem Stephenson
Zachary Smith, 23, guides the body of a large male alligator as it is hoisted up to be measured and displayed at the 2015 Gatorfest in Anahuac.

In Texas, that meant Amos Cooper. A lean, laconic man, Cooper has been supervising TPWD’s alligator program since 1986, keeping track of alligator farmers, landowners and hunters, both amateur and professional. Alligators are still protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or CITES, which regulates the shipment of threatened animals. In order to sell a gator for processing, Cooper said, you need a CITES tag attached to its hide. TPWD issued only 2,200 this season, some of which went to landowners after an assessment of their property and a nest survey. Landowners can harvest a certain number of the alligators on their land, either by themselves or by selling the tags to individuals, who can then hunt alligators on the property. It’s illegal to hunt alligators on public land or take them off of it.

Poaching is always a problem, Cooper said, but the tags help: You can’t do much without a CITES tag. The real issue is that hunters inevitably want the biggest alligators; according to Porter, the current market price for an alligator is $25 per foot, and a 12-foot bull goes for about $300. But the biggest alligators, all of which are old males, are also rare and important for the ecosystem, Cooper said. The bulls fight and devour smaller males they encounter during the breeding season. As a result, smaller adults constantly push into unclaimed territories, which keeps the population comfortably spread out. Without big males, the number of 3- to 5-foot alligators explodes.

But people don’t care about small alligators. They want the big ones. And that’s what the Alligator Roundup aims to provide.

The first Gatorfest took place in 1989, in Fort Anahuac Park. According to the Anahuac Chamber of Commerce, the event attracted 14,000 people and stayed open a single Saturday. It’s grown considerably since then, and with the expansion, the original focus on alligators has loosened. Carnival rides — swinging spaceships, spinning teacups, mechanical bulls — crowded the park when I arrived with a photographer. Country music blared, and circus performers wandered the walk, shadowed by two people dressed as folksy reptiles.

The first sign of real alligators came with the food stands. “Put our balls in your mouth!” declared one creative notice hanging above sizzling lumps of white meat. Others simply read “gator on a stick.” Nearby sat the education tent, packed with tables manned by TPWD officials and park staff from the nearby Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. At the far end of the tent, a large tank was managed by Cooper and a few volunteers, who held out young, squirming gators to interested visitors. A 5-foot alligator hissed and splashed from inside a small, fenced-in kiddie pool.

SUVs and pickup trucks drove down the gravel drive into the roundup staging area, disgorging camo-clad men, local families and kids in fluorescent T-shirts and sunglasses. The alligators they brought ranged widely in size, but each bore a neat bullet hole through the skull. The winch hummed, hauling the carcasses up for the crowd. At one point the winners of the 2015 Gatorfest Pageant posed with a hanging carcass, gingerly turning the gaping cloaca away from the cameras before igniting kilowatt smiles. Underneath the smell of cooking grease came the wafting odor of reptilian musk and spoiled meat.

We sat at the covered picnic tables with Porter and the volunteers, watching the hunters roll in. In between operating the winch, Moore told us how gators sometimes steal the catch off his line when he’s fishing, and how nicking yourself on alligator teeth can get the bacteria in your blood, make you lose a finger. Moore doesn’t hunt alligators anymore, but he remembers the process. After getting permission to hunt on a landowner’s property, you scout for a likely looking alligator, hang a chicken from a pole, and wait. “You want a little gator, you put the bait down low,” he said. “You want to catch a big gator, you put the bait up high. They use those big tails to get up out the water. … Once they swallow it, they go down.” Then you and your friends haul the hooked alligator up onto the bank and shoot it between the eyes. Generally, the alligator is killed immediately.

Generally, but not always. As we spoke, a truck rolled in with two 6-foot alligators in the back. One was completely still, its skull stove in by the gunshot. But when the volunteers hauled the other out of the truck bed, it began thrashing.

Everyone froze. A volunteer shook his head. “They’re supposed to dispatch ’em before they come in here.”

“Could just be nerves,” one of the others said.

“It’s a reptile,” Porter said. “They do wiggle for a while.”

The gator gave a particularly powerful wriggle, its claws digging into the truck bed. “Nope,” Moore said. “That’s alive.”

A couple of men climbed into the truck, piling onto the back of the thrashing alligator, holding it down. Another man brandished a knife and drove it between the soft plates of the skull. The body kept moving, tail banging against the plastic bed. The man with the knife shoved the blade through the back of the skull, working it back and forth. Blood gleamed harsh and red in the sun. Then the gator went still and the men carried it out onto the grass to be measured with the rest.

As the hours passed, more hunters sold their kills to Porter. He makes a decent amount of money off of alligators these days. Not only is he a landowner with a spread of prime habitat, he’s also one of three alligator buyers in Texas, and the main one for Anahuac. According to his daughter Kristi, who runs the business with him, Porter uses “every part of the animal but the growl.” Hides are sold to the tanners, meat to local buyers, fat to the soap makers, bones for medical research. “We even use the feet,” Porter said. “A man takes those. Builds backscratchers out of ’em.”

Alligator feet backscratchers
Leslie Boorhem Stephenson
Alligator feet backscratchers for sale at Porter’s Processing & Gator Farm retail tent.

Porter stumbled into the business through happenstance. For 30 years he worked in a chemical plant near Baytown and spent all his free time in the swamps, moonlighting as a fur trapper. After the fur market went bust and alligators became legal game, he began hunting them for sport and selling the carcasses. Then a gator buyer overpaid him by $940, and when informed of the mistake, told him to go ahead and keep it. That lit a fire under Porter. How much were they making, he recalled thinking, to be able to just give away $940? Straight away, he opened up an operation of his own.

Porter’s Processing was born at the 1991 Gatorfest. That year they got 600 carcasses in a day. “My little processing plant that I’d started wasn’t much bigger than a trailer,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it. I had to send ’em to Louisiana.” He stuck with it, expanding the operation, even briefly trying his hand at alligator farming. Last year, they processed 1,200 gators without a problem. This season, he ended up processing about 800. Most of the processing happens during the 20-day hunting season, a year’s worth of alligators wedged into less than a month.

Alligators genuinely interest Porter, and he peppered our conversation with stories about their hunting behavior and intelligence. But he has little time for romanticism. Anahuac, he pointed out, is poor, and alligators provide a nice revenue stream. “People like me who are in the business, we want to see alligators here for a long time,” he said. “I could have taken 300 this year… I took five. My area was devastated during Hurricane Ike, we let them build back. Most of my hunters and the people I deal with want their habitat to maintain a population of alligators so they’ll have an income coming off of it for years. It’s a good little extra income for people.”

The roundup’s grand prize went to E.J. King, who brought in a bull 12 feet 8 inches long. Lawrence’s kill had been beaten by an inch. E.J. King got the $1,000 prize, plus $300 for selling his alligator to Porter. The alligator got processed.

This is the argument everyone makes regarding alligator hunting: Economic incentives are what prompt people to keep alligators around. It’s a reasonable argument. According to Cooper, now that the alligator population has reached a healthy number, occasional harvesting is necessary to keep it there, and communities might as well make something from it. Moreover, alligators are big predators, and increasingly there’s friction between them and the expanding human presence in their habitat. New residents in alligator territory panic upon finding small males in their private ponds, backyards and pools. People throw fish guts into the water, or intentionally feed alligators, causing them to lose their innate wariness. TPWD is then called upon to deal with such “nuisance” alligators, Cooper said, either by removing or killing them.

And while it is true that an alligator occasionally snatches somebody’s pet, most of the time they aren’t bothering anybody. “Some people will see a 6-footer just swimming up the bayou, and they want to call and say, ‘Oh, I’m afraid for my dog,’” Cooper said. “Well, no. He’s in the bayou, doing what he’s supposed to do. We aren’t going to remove him for you. Even if they call and get a complaint number, when the nuisance control hunter gets there, his job is to re-evaluate the situation to see if it really is a nuisance. But a lot of these landowners, they just want that alligator gone, and they’ll say anything that it takes to get you out there to get it gone.” This is the kind of attitude Cooper wants to forestall, whether through education or economic enticement.

Sometimes, though, the problem is that people see alligators solely as a monetary opportunity. As a result, despite training and certification processes, Cooper said, sometimes his nuisance control hunters — independent contractors, all — get overzealous. “We can’t instill morals in ’em, but we try to get ’em to do the right thing,” he said. “A lot of times [they’re] scaring people, telling them, ‘Oh, this is an aggressive alligator and we need to get him out.’ Trying to drum up business. Once we changed the nuisance control program up to where we allowed the nuisance control hunter to charge a fee, pretty much any alligator over 6 feet was going to be a nuisance. And that’s where we need to get better as a department.”

That tangle of appreciation and incentives feels like the fuel behind Gatorfest. Many people organizing and visiting the festival genuinely love alligators. And yet it was striking how little celebration of the animals themselves the festival contained. By steering away from the popular image of a monster lurking in black swamps, Gatorfest has instead reduced the alligator to a commodity, a symbol of nature conquered and turned into a sideshow attraction.

Commodifying nature is nothing new. And perhaps my unease is the discomfort of a city person, who doesn’t have to live around big predators or make a living from them. But it was impossible to shake the feeling that Gatorfest was designed to draw in city folk and present them with alligators as mascots, not as animals in their own right.

If nothing else, it leaves you hungry to see the real thing. Before leaving, the photographer and I drove 20 miles south to the wide patchwork of marsh and pastureland contained in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. We walked for hours amid whispering grasses and salt breeze, staring into the brown waters. Now and then we froze, pointing and whispering at the distant armored backs that sculled silently through the duckweed. It was deceptively easy to look at them and see only their physical size. But they always look bigger alive.

[Featured image credit: Leslie Boorhem Stephenson]

Asher Elbein is a freelance journalist and fiction writer based in Austin.

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Published at 9:21 am CST