It seems that lately, Florida's alligators have been grabbing more than their share of news. In the past month we've seen a giant gator walk across a golf course, watched a gator eat another gator, and heard reports of gators making their way north. Most alarmingly, a gator attacked and killed a toddler at Disney World. Why are gators suddenly and horrifyingly everywhere?
If anyone would know, it's Frank Denninger. A self-described member of the Gladesman subculture—basically guys who hang out in Florida swamps and forage for a living—he grew up near Miami and started poaching frogs as a kid before graduating to deer and finally to gators. The 68-year-old, chain-smoking swamp aficionado remembers the second-ever state-sponsored gator harvest back in 1989, and at one point made a living from hawking the critters' hides.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Denninger was at his Hialeah home watching a Florida Wildlife Commission meeting on his computer, as he often does. During the Commission's lunch break, I called him up to get some insight as to why gators have been in the news so much lately and what someone should do if they stumble upon one. He answered my questions, but I mostly got tales about Denninger's deftness with a harpoon during his glory days.
VICE: Is Florida's gator population increasing, or are they getting more aggressive? Why are we seeing so many gators in the news?
Frank Denninger: It's all the same with what I consider dangerous animals, whether it's panthers, alligators, or bears. Biologists make a good living and a career off of studying these animals. The state has built industries around this stuff, whether it's alligator watching or wildlife observation. People come here to do that. That's OK, but these animals pose a threat, and the threat isn't always exposed––in my opinion––strongly enough.
What are the rules for hunting gators now?
Well alligators were perceived of being endangered 30 or 40 years ago. So back in the old days, when you bought a hunting license, it specified certain animals you could kill: deer hunting, bear hunting, panther hunting––at one point panther hunting was legal. You got a colorful book I wish I saved that explained everything about the rules. In the back there was a section called "unprotected species," and what that meant was that you could kill them on sight anywhere you saw them––stuff like bobcats otters, raccoons, possums and armadillos.
They eventually made it illegal to hunt alligators. But they didn't really enforce it, and people used to hang around canal banks close to Hialeah or Miami, and if you saw an alligator you just shot it. But when the gators became rare, people thought they were going extinct, so they did what they needed to do to protect them. They banned all harassment, and nowadays they have very strict rules in protecting animals. I mean technically it's illegal to make an endangered species's heart rate go up.
Are the gators today bigger than the gators decades ago?
To me in the last 20 years it's all been the same. They're just all over the place, and they are frickin' big.
As a Gladesman, do you have a lot of experience with killing gators?
I hunted gators for a few years. Me and a buddy of mine had airboats. We'd go out and do it for the month and have a lot of fun––staying out there all night, having problems, the airboat sinking three times a night, shit like that. It was pretty exciting but extremely tiring.
How do you make money doing that, is it just the skins you sell, or the meat?
It's the skins and the hides. There's two ways people did it. Some people would hunt the alligators and then come in and skin them and then pull the meat off of them, and do everything you gotta do, and sell them on their own. That's a lot of work. They'd store the hides, salt them, roll them up, and then put them in a brine solution to store them. Then they would wait until the market price came up, then they would take them to an authorized processor and sell them, and get all the tags and different technical issues that you gotta deal with in handling alligator parts.
How much money did you make doing that?
The first year we hunted the gators, the choice we made was to get the gators during the nighttime, bring them in the morning to an authorized fish house, and just sell them on the spot. They have different prices. The first time I think up to eight feet you got up to $40 a foot, period. You just gave them the whole gator. But if you went over eight feet you got $55 a foot, and then in some situations it was $65 a foot.
What was the biggest one you ever caught?
Twelve-foot-two was our biggest. It was about our third alligator that we got. First one was about eight, and we got a couple of ten-footers, and we probably lost a 13-footer one night. Pissed me off, man. It was a long story, but we forgot to put a second harpoon in this giant gator. Because when you first harpoon a gator, you run with him, cruise with the air boat, and when you get up close to a gator you slow down a little bit and probably go about five to ten miles per hour. And the guy down in the bottom of the boat would be holding a spotlight on the gator so you could see the gator, and another guy would throw the harpoon down at the gator while the boat was moving. Then you just keep moving with the boat. And his hook would pop out eventually on the end of a 30-foot rope tied to the harpoon tip, and then I'd turn around on a big gator.
The first 12-footer we got, we did this. We came back to that gator, and then at our leisure, when the harpoon kind of screwed him up, we'd get right beside him with the second harpoon and really plant it deep to make sure you got it in far enough. Because it ain't easy to stick a harpoon tip in a gator. Their hide is something to be dealt with. So we got that gator, and the second giant one we got we just totally forgot to do it.
What does a gator smell like?
There's a tang in the air. You know, I smoke and it's weird that I smoke and [still] have got sharp nose. I claim that it's like a hound dog.
Are gators smart at all? Do they have any problem-solving skills?
I think so. I think everyone that gator hunts thinks they do, because on Lake Okeechobee, [when I hunted them the second year that it was legal] they were already light-shy from the first hunt. I heard the word from people who were on the first hunt: "Oh man, boy, them son of a bitches ain't stupid."
The first year we went, you could drive up beside them almost and stick 'em. They were like sitting ducks. The second year was not the same. The third year was even worse. If you put a light on a gator's eyes, they would drop 400 yards away. We were trying all kinds of tricks to get these gators. You would hold the edge of the light beam on them with the brightest part way above them and slowly come in on them. But eventually you've gotta put the light down on them for the guy down in the boat to be able to harpoon it.
Some people harpooned right from the driver's seat. I went out with a local boy one night and I was amazed at how good he was. Oh shit, he was Superman with a harpoon. But when we did it, we just had extreme problems. They have a mind of their own. I definitely think they have the brains to adapt.
What should you do if you're getting chased by a gator? In the Florida school I went to, they told us to run in zig-zags.
What school did you go to that you learned that? I've never heard of anything like that. To be honest, I don't know. I'd try to get behind a tree, or climb a tree. Kind of like if you're getting chased by a pig. These animals can outrun you.
I've walked right up on alligators, usually when I'm hunting, and what I do is I slowly and quietly back up and put distance between me and that gator to take the pressure off him. The way I look at it, everything wants a certain amount of space. Like if I'm a stranger and I get to close to you, you get uncomfortable. Same thing with animals. And to me, staying safe with wildlife has a lot to do with body language. And you've gotta know how to control it; most people don't.
So if you get your arm caught by a gator, is there a way a person without a harpoon could escape this situation, or should you just give up?
Personally I'd just probably faint. I thought about it a lot. Really I have—legs and arms getting in gator's mouth, because I've had close calls. I don't know. It's gotta be a traumatic experience that you can't prepare for. If it's a big enough gator, you have no control, and if he starts spinning, he will dismember you. But let me say this: I've heard from many people that once a gator gets you, you get your finger his eyeball to make him release.
Do think the world would be a better place without gators?
No. There's a guy out there named Newton Cook who made a comment about this, and I wish I could quote what he said. But basically what he said is that there's nothing wrong with having them; they need to be there, but rare.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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