This is how Julie Harter keeps her fragile life together. This is how she copes with her terrifying grief about her late husband, Billy.
She catches dragons.
She pins up her long auburn hair, backs the truck to the trailer and hits the interstate. She checks her cell phone messages, mutters to
herself about the work ahead, and aims her Ford F-250 four-wheel diesel past the
Wal-Marts and Starbucks of the 21st century. She drives through subdivisions where winding streets are named after herons, all the while keeping her eyes on the ponds and the lakes where the dragons dwell.
"Hello, ma'am,'' she says, when a young mother, child in arms, answers her knock in West Tampa. "I'm the state alligator trapper for Hillsborough County. I hear you're
having a problem. Can I go in your back yard and take a look?''
Alligator trappers are supposed to be macho men with baritone voices and missing fingers. Gold bracelets flashing, Florida's only female alligator trapper comes on like Loretta Lynn on steroids. "Sweetie, I'm going to get you your gator,'' she tells folks who have discovered that Florida, deep down, is Jurassic Park.
Feisty from spring weather, hunger and mating urges, dragons have been especially rambunctious this year. Last month a different trapper caught one that wandered into a Pinellas County kitchen. A few weeks ago Harter, a 46-year-old grandmother, nabbed the gator suspected of biting a Tampa golf course ball retriever. She hauled the 8-footer to a Dade City processing plant, fired a bullet into its brain, and sold it. She gets about $40 a foot for each hide.
"The dude who got bit on the golf course, he's still telling people I got the wrong gator, that it had to be much bigger than it was,'' she says. "I ain't saying he's wrong. But I have to stick up for myself and say that I got the one that was in that pond. Sugar, I'm going to tell you something. A lot of men, they can't stand that it's a little old girl who is catching gators.''
Even Billy was like that sometimes. Overly macho. He was a handsome country boy; she was a pretty farmer's daughter who knew how to turn a boy's head.
She had married for the first time at 18. The marriage went kaput. She was lonely and wanted her kids to have a dad, so she married again, and then again. Strike three.
Along the way she graduated from the University of South Florida with a teaching degree and got a job working with mentally and physically challenged high school kids. She still spends half her day at Lakeland Gibson High, trying to persuade kids not to quit.
She encountered Billy Harter at a rodeo in 1994. He was handsome, a few years older, nice but wild. A month later they were married.
He operated heavy equipment at the Tampa shipyard. On the side, he caught Tampa's bad boy alligators. One time he and a tow truck hauled a 13-foot-11 5/8-inch dragon from a construction pit after it charged out of a canal after a worker. The photo of that gator still shows up on the Internet as an 18 1/2-footer allegedly caught in Orlando.
"Ain't so,'' Harter says. "I know the girl who has the stuffed head in her living room. Me.''
Eventually she learned how to catch dragons, too. She remembers the time Billy sent her out to scout an alligator-infested pond in a Tampa Bay back yard. She didn't scout. She caught. "He 'bout had a cow that I was messing with gators,'' she says.
One time, when Billy was indisposed, she answered an emergency call. While she stalked her prey, the homeowner stepped into the yard to watch. "She was a pretty girl in a little cotton night dress. She bent down to pick up her dog and she wasn't wearing panties. Boy, did I give it to Billy. 'No wonder you love this job!' "
Billy, who was never seriously injured by an alligator, taught her to be careful. She has been hurt only once, when a sheriff's deputy, worried that a woman could not handle an alligator alone, tried to help.
"Dude,'' she remembers telling him. "You do your job and I'll do mine.''
He panicked and threw down the catch pole when the alligator started thrashing on the bank, as they usually do when pulled from the water. The catch pole — it has a loop of cable on the end — gashed Harter's hand.
That pain was nothing compared to what she feels for Billy. Grief is one terrible dragon, more terrible than the ones she catches in Tampa back yards. She hopes one day she can slay it.
Billy wasn't tall, but he was powerful, with enormous hands. Yet he had a soft side. One time he brought home a frightened beagle puppy that needed a bath. Some men might have dunked the little fellow and been done with it. Not Billy. He stripped and joined the new family pet in the tub. Sometimes, when Harter chaperoned the prom, he'd gussy up and be her date, wearing his cowboy hat and string tie.
"He was the love of my life,'' she says, breaking down again. "He was more involved with my two children than their real dad ever was. Billy and Julie. We were like peanut butter and jelly.''
• • •
Like at least some men, alligators are primitive animals with brains about the size of a walnut. Nobody knows completely what makes them tick. When they get a mind to go somewhere, or to do something peculiar, they'll do it, even if they have to knock down a screen or climb a wall.
Last year, 40 licensed state trappers got 11,000 alligators, mostly from suburbs that used to be wilderness. Harter harvested 392. In a perfect world, those gators would be relocated, unharmed, to a place where alligators are scarce.
That Florida no longer exists. "We have a saying around here,'' says Lindsey Hord, the state's nuisance alligator coordinator. "Any body of freshwater that does not have an alligator will have one soon. For your safety, just assume there's an alligator.''
Hunting, legal and illegal, put Alligator mississippiensis on the protected list in 1970. Now more than a million gators share habitat with 18-million human guests who never thought they'd be on the menu. The state started keeping track of alligator attacks in 1949; the first fatality didn't happen until 1973. Now fatalities are almost an annual occurrence. Alligators killed three people in 2006. There was one fatality in 2007 but 17 other attacks.
It's no wonder people get hurt. They don't know what they're dealing with.
"No sir, that's not an alligator,'' Harter told a guy alarmed by the backyard racket coming from the weeds. "Those are pig frogs.''
She told a woman, "Ma'am, stop feeding alligators Oreos and they won't come up on your lawn.''
Some folks don't cry wolf.
"I heard a knock on the door,'' a man told her over the phone recently. "I looked out the peephole, but there was nothing out there. I heard the knock again, looked out the peephole, nothing there. So I opened the door . . ."
She caught the alligator lounging on his front porch.
She caught one in a screened-in swimming pool. She got one that climbed a 4-foot wall and ended up in a rich man's fountain. She hauled one out from under a Nissan at an apartment complex.
"The Crocodile Hunter is a girl!'' yelled someone in the crowd.
Harter is something of a celebrity in Tampa. Her exploits often land her on the news. "If you're taking a picture,'' she sometimes advises photographers, "no butt shots.'' A solidly built woman, Harter has striking blue eyes and a nurturing personality. Sometimes, after she catches a menacing alligator, the grateful homeowner who has just been called "Sugar" develops a crush.
"Yes. Nice to hear from you,'' she tells the admirer who has tracked down her cell number. "I'm actually on an emergency call right now and can't talk.''
She hangs up.
"Never catch an alligator for a lesbian,'' she says.
Since Billy's death, friends have set her up with interesting dating prospects. "They're men who want to be taken care of,'' she says. "I don't feel nothing when I'm with them. I'm sorry but I don't.''
After one date disaster, she drove to Lakeland's Socrum Cemetery where Billy is buried, sobbed, swore at him for leaving her.
"Look what you done to me,'' she told him.
• • •
He loved fast cars almost as much as he loved catching alligators. Eventually he joined the Goodson Farms Racing Team. Comfortable with tools, he befriended the team's owner, a strawberry farmer named Donn Goodson. They were always cutting up together. They enjoyed the same boyish jokes.
On Oct. 21, 2003, Billy drove to Goodson's estate and farm in Balm. Goodson planned to give helicopter tours to some visitors; he recruited Billy to shoot video.
Goodson, with a passenger at his side, flew in low while Billy stood on the ground, shooting. Billy's videocamera caught the action. The helicopter hit him, then crashed into a nearby building. Billy, 46, died instantly, Goodson a few days later.
Goodson lacked a valid pilot's license at the time. A National Transportation Safety Board report blamed the accident on the "pilot's intentional buzzing and his failure to maintain altitude/clearance which resulted in an in-flight collision with a building.''
Harter seldom got out of bed for the next four months. She barely ate.
One day, someone from the state telephoned and asked if she wanted Billy's old job.
She said yes. In a way, Billy could live through her.
But first she got rid of his old gator truck. When she got behind the wheel, she could smell his aftershave.
• • •
In Carrollwood, Helena Martensen stands in her patio and looks at her pond. The length of a football field, it happens to be home to three alligators.
Martensen tells her 7-year-old son, Brenden, "You can't play in the back yard.'' Martensen loves Florida. She has won awards from the city for her ideas regarding saving water.
"We have to weigh common sense with conservation,'' she tells her husband. "That gator scares me.''
"That" gator is a dragon, twice the size of the others. Harter tries to coax it to eat an odoriferous beef lung, in which she has hidden a bait. Nothing doing.
She sets out an overnight line.
Martensen calls the next morning. "You got one. I don't know which.''
Harter can't chase dragons until school is out. But within an hour she's in the back yard at Breland Street, among those expensive homes in Jurassic Park.
The line she set yesterday — it's 1,000-pound-test parachute cord — is piano-string taut. It vanishes into the dark water.
She gives a tug. Resistance.
She pulls with oomph.
Now she hauls. A dragon thrashes to the surface. He dives, water exploding, like when Godzilla marched out of Tokyo Bay in the sci-fi movie. The line hisses through Harter's hand. She plays him like Hemingway's marlin, tries to tire him out before landing him.
After five minutes his head pops out near shore. Spectators automatically step back. Harter steps forward and sticks his jaws with a dart attached to a pole and a stout rope. Now she's got him good.
Her strapping 28-year-old son, Lee, has come along to watch. Now she needs him. Inch by inch they drag her dragon onto the lawn. Inches from her hands, the jaws pop.
Harter sits on him, the way Billy taught her. The annoyed dragon hisses a deep hiss from a primeval nightmare.
Reaching over his head, she leans against the top of his jaw with both hands and all her weight. The muscles that open an alligator's jaws are weak. He can't open against her weight.
She manages to clamp her small, bare right hand around the huge jaws, holding them closed, but it's frightening to watch. If the dragon were to escape her grasp, it would use its chomping power — 2,000 pounds per square inch — to crush her hand to jelly.
With her free hand now she encircles the jaws with layers of electrician's tape. Next she reaches back and hog-ties the legs. She hates it "when one of those slippery bastards tries to run away from me.''
Except for one thing.
Eleven feet, 6 inches. About 500 pounds.
Billy, if you're out there, be proud of your alligator girl, the dragon slayer.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.