Bethany Cook expected to see alligators when she and her husband Ray moved to west-central Florida. At night, Ray ambled into their Manatee County back yard to point a flashlight into the 5-acre pond. The red glow of alligator eyes bounced back at him with a prehistoric vengeance.
What tales he would tell the relatives back in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Eventually, the proximity of modern dinosaurs began gnawing on the couple's peace of mind. "We worried we'd end up with a gator on the lawn,'' Bethany said. Her daughter, 3-year-old Piper, played at her feet next to the family dog, a blind beagle named Bailey.
As thousands of anxious Florida residents do every year, the Cooks called the state wildlife office to voice their concerns about a world where children, dogs and alligators sometimes collide.
Last spring, the state trapper for Manatee County, Chad Wright, showed up with hooks and snares and smelly baits. He caught an alligator right away, but not the one that scared the Cooks the most. Wright looked at that animal — it was at least 9 feet long — through binoculars. It lay on the far bank, near a creek connecting the pond to the Manatee River, which flows a couple of miles west to Tampa Bay.
"Wait a minute,'' Wright said. "That doesn't exactly look like . . . Could it be? Excuse me. I've got to call my boss.''
A day later Lindsey Hord drove to the Cooks' modern subdivision from his state office in Okeechobee.
"Well, I'll be,'' Hord said, watching the big animal bask on the far bank. It wasn't slate gray or black like an alligator. Nor did it have an alligator's rounded snout. It was a greenish-gray in color. The narrow snout, tapered at the end, displayed a world of ferocious teeth.
The first American crocodile known to visit the Tampa Bay area in about a century had arrived. It looked completely at home.
Almost everyone in Florida has seen an alligator, found primarily in any freshwater body in the state.
The crocodile, North America's largest reptile, is much rarer. "I would guess that most Floridians don't even know we have a native crocodile,'' says biologist Frank Mazzotti, who studies them for the University of Florida. "They're always quite surprised to find out.''
The American crocodile, which grows slightly larger than the common American alligator, is a tropical animal that prefers salt or brackish water. Its range extends from the north coast of South America to Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba and the extreme tip of South Florida. Like alligators, crocs were virtually wiped out in Florida by hunters and land developers in the early 20th century.
When Mazzotti began searching for reptiles during his doctoral studies three decades ago, he sometimes wondered if the crocodile was an animal of myth. "There were about 200 left in Florida,'' he says. He and researchers spent months combing the mosquito-infested mangrove islands of Everglades National Park to get their hands on one. "They came out basically at night, and you found them by looking for their eyes in your flashlight beam. Otherwise, you didn't see them.''
The return of the crocodile to healthy status is among the great comeback stories in America's wildlife history. Thanks to law enforcement, habitat protection and — we'll explain this a little later — a crocodile-friendly nuclear power plant, about 2,000 crocs now patrol South Florida's mangrove coastlines.
In recent years they have been documented from Palm Beach to Miami and from the Florida Keys north to Tampa Bay.
Biologists and nature lovers say "How cool!''
But this being Florida, a state crowded by people who come mostly from somewhere else, a question heard more and more is "Are my grandchildren and my Rottweiler going to be on the crocodile menu?''
Yes on the dog question, but only if you're careless.
Probably not on the human question, but swim at your own risk.
• • •
Scientists like Mazzotti defend the American crocodile as less aggressive than its people-eating cousins in Africa and the South Pacific. "One time I was checking a crocodile nest in Everglades National Park and I backed right up into a 10-foot female. I looked down and her head was virtually between my legs. She let out with a hoooawww-hiss and I jumped about 30 feet. She had me dead to rights. She could have killed me. But all she did was hiss. That's typical behavior.''
American crocodiles typically eat smaller prey than alligators.
There is no record of an American crocodile attack on a Floridian.
Now for the bad news: They have attacked elsewhere.
In 2007, a 9-footer dragged a 5-year-old boy into Mexico's Tomatlan River. Only after authorities began firing guns did the croc release the dead child.
Last June, an inebriated 23-year-old Irishman on vacation in Cancun took a swim in the crocodile-infested Nichupte Lagoon to win a bet. He won the wager but was mauled by a 7-foot crocodile.
"A guy is told there are crocodiles in the lagoon, don't go swimming, especially at night,'' Mazzotti says. "So he goes swimming in that lagoon at night. This wasn't a bright thing to do. Can you blame the crocodile?''
• • •
Crocodiles began their Florida comeback after the establishment of the endangered species laws of the 1970s.
In Key Largo, Crocodile Lake National Refuge provides a safe harbor from bulldozers and poachers. Wildlife culverts allow crocodiles to pass beneath South Florida's notoriously critter-unfriendly highways.
The best thing that ever happened to Florida's American crocodile was the opening of Florida Power and Light's Turkey Point Nuclear Plant near Homestead in 1972. The 6,000-acre facility contains 150 miles of canals to store machinery-cooling water. The water, warmer than adjacent Biscayne Bay, must feel like heaven to tropical crocodiles that shiver when temperatures dip below 60.
In the late 1970s, a biologist counted two nests and 17 hatchlings on the grounds. Turkey Point today is a crocodile nursery for 500 adults — one quarter of the entire state population — and dozens of nests.
Joe Wasilewski, the plant's crocodile caretaker, marks every hatchling with a computer chip that allows scientists to keep track of Turkey Point crocodiles wherever they end up.
Despite their reputation for shyness, they end up on boat ramps in broad daylight. They slink into back yards. They sunbathe on exclusive golf courses. "We just had to have an 11-footer removed from the ninth green,'' says Sean Anderson, superintendent of the Card Sound Golf and Country Club at Key Largo. "Our snowbird golfers were really nervous about him. It was an automatic three-putt green for a lot of golfers.''
In the Keys, crocodiles crawl into swimming pools after dark. If a surprised homeowner hits the backyard light switch, the croc generally bolts for nearby Florida Bay. One resident, Don Francis, woke early one morning to tend his backyard flower bed. A 9-foot female crocodile was using it for her nest.
In September, a teenager killed a 10-foot crocodile on the University of Miami campus. American crocodiles are a federally protected species and the boy was arrested.
• • •
Most anxious Floridians don't reach for their guns. They call the crocodile hunter.
Lindsey Hord, 55, has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for nearly three decades. He remembers a time when alligators were rare and crocodiles even rarer.
The alligator population exploded to a point where the state established a "nuisance control" program. Under Hord's leadership, trappers kill and catch about 11,000 alligators a year, about 1 percent of the state's population.
Now Hord carries an additional title: crocodile response coordinator. From coast to coast he tries to calm alarmed waterfront residents such as the couple who live near the Manatee River close to the mouth of Tampa Bay.
"Okay. We got a croc here,'' he tells such folks. "But you shouldn't be worried. They're generally timid and they're going to keep their distance. Don't feed them. Don't go swimming. Don't let your child or dog walk near the water. Consider fencing your yard.''
Years ago, Hord and other biologists provided the same advice to residents afraid of alligators. Millions of Floridians heeded them, and a few didn't. Twenty Floridians since 1973 have been killed. Several victims were ambushed in their yards by lurking alligators, dragged from canal banks and devoured or dismembered.
State policy, at present, spares the lives of crocodiles. They're considered special. "We're trying to educate the public that it's possible for crocodiles and people to coexist.''
Anyway, that's what he told Ray and Bethany Cook in their back yard near the Manatee River last spring.
"We'd like you to get rid of this croc,'' Bethany Cook said.
"Well, I'll try to catch it and move it,'' Hord said, disappointed.
He tried snagging it with a stout line from shore. The croc heard the splash and made a beeline in the opposite direction.
A few days later Hord sped back to Manatee County from Okeechobee towing a small boat. He launched the boat after dark and tried sneaking up on the wary croc. For hours he chased the crocodile back and forth across the pond.
Eventually, the croc fled under a small bridge and down the canal that leads into the Manatee River. It hasn't been seen since.
• • •
In Okeechobee, the phone rings in Hord's office in late November. Tom Sansbury, the president of Grey Oaks Development in Naples, is on the line. The residents in Sansbury's 1,000-acre development are terrified of the crocodile they've seen on the golf course.
Hord drives over so he can present Sansbury with a brochure, "Living with Crocodiles," to hand out to residents. "You know, the American crocodile isn't like the crocodile in Australia,'' Hord explains. "It's not the crocodile that pulls wildebeests into the Nile River in Africa. It's a different animal. Less aggressive. Explain that to your residents, will you?''
A few days later comes the verdict: The residents are having none of it. It's a crocodile, and they want it gone.
Dave Regal, the Collier County alligator trapper, visits the golf course and catches the croc.
"It's a beautiful animal,'' Hord says after he has parked in Regal's back yard. Hord binds the hissing crocodile. Then he pokes a long finger into a place on the crocodile where the sun never shines.
"It's a male.''
He uses a winch to weigh the croc: 142 pounds. He measures: 8 feet 4 1/4 inches long. He waves what looks like a magic wand at the crocodile's back. The wand picks up an electrical pulse from a computer chip. This croc hatched in 1999 at the nuclear plant near Homestead.
On the other coast. More than a hundred miles away. A new record for crocodile travel.
An hour later, Hord and his crocodile, tied up and unhappy in the truck bed, arrive at a wilderness preserve on the edge of Naples. He drags the crocodile to the pavement, removes the bindings, nudges the crocodile with his flip-flop-clad foot.
Like lightning, it bolts into Rookery Bay.
"I have a feeling we're going to see this one again,'' Hord says. "You move them, they want to come back.''
Ten miles away, a golfer at Lakewood Country Club gets ready to tee off.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.