Thomas Schusser got the call Monday evening.
A man was retrieving an errant golfing disc from a lake when he was bitten by an 11-foot alligator. Schusser, an alligator trapper for the state, needed to head over to the Cliff Stephens Park in Clearwater right away.
Schusser roped the gator, which had lingered after the attack, and loaded it into his trailer. From there, he said he hauled it to an alligator farm that will keep it alive for breeding, at least in the short term.
Most of the thousands of alligators reported as a nuisance in Florida each year meet a different fate. Regardless of whether they threatened a person or pet, they are killed for their meat and hide.
Florida’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program has contracts with 102 trappers across the state. It dispatches them when law enforcement gets a call about an alligator that might pose a threat to people, property or pets.
The state has a $210,000 budget for the purpose. Trappers receive just a $30 stipend for each alligator they capture until the state runs out of money for the program, which usually happens in the third or fourth quarter each year.
The stipend may barely cover gas money for the trappers. They make their money from the sale of the reptiles.
"When a contracted nuisance alligator trapper removes an alligator, it becomes the property of the trapper," said Tammy Sapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, by email. "In most cases, the alligator is processed for its hide and meat, which is the primary source of compensation for their services."
While alligator attacks have been on the rise in Florida as people build homes closer to areas where the reptiles are common, they average just 10 a year.
Many of the complaints fielded by law enforcement or the Wildlife Commission are far more mundane. An alligator shows up at a community pond where people walk their dogs. Or they drop into a backyard pool or wander across a golf course and someone reports their concern.
The result is generally the same.
By rule, if the trapped alligator is four feet or longer, it’s considered a threat. Trappers aren’t allowed to relocate the alligator.
In 2016, SNAP received 16,094 nuisance alligator complaints, and issued 12,799 permits to capture them. Of that number, 8,036 were killed, according to Wildlife Commission records.
Karina Sura Paner has an alternative way of dealing with the gators she traps. She whisks them to Croc Encounters, a facility she runs with her husband that houses all kinds of reptiles — gators, crocodiles and snakes.
They offer guided tours and birthday parties, or show off the beasts at nursing homes and other places.
She wishes the state would invest in more education about alligators. She said people should know that if there’s an alligator out there, there is not necessarily a need to call a trapper.
"People don’t know it’s okay to live alongside these animals," Paner said.
Alligators usually only become a nuisance if they’re fed by humans, Paner said. It makes them less fearful and unlikely to shy away from crowds or noise made by humans.
And even though the state’s nuisance animal program website explicitly states that trapped alligators are harvested, people don’t always understand that.
"They think it’s going to go to a better place, somewhere else in the wild where it belongs. And that’s really not the case," Paner said.
When Schusser arrived at the park in Clearwater where Richard Peel, 35, was bitten, Wildlife Commission officers, police and firefighters already were there.
Using a treble hook Schusser snagged the alligator’s jowl — their hide is so thick and rough, it stuck easily without piercing through. He then pulled it to shore and tied it up.
Schusser said he is not in the trapping business to make a living. The market for alligator hide is extremely volatile and far less lucrative than it used to be. Schusser might spend $100 on fuel driving to and from the location where an alligator has been reported.
After his $30 stipend from the state, "that’s $70 that I’ll never get back," Schusser said.
He said he knows of maybe one or two trappers that sell alligators to hide buyers and meat processors full time. The rest, he said, like him, do it just because they enjoy it and want to help.
But it takes more energy and money to catch a nuisance alligator alive, and keep it alive, Schusser said.
"It’s easier to do a baited hook and go about your business and come back later and find an alligator hooked," he said. "I’m sure you’ve seen some of the shows, where people leave a rancid piece of chicken, (the alligator) swallows it because they can’t chew, it hooks in their guts and most of the time it kills them."
If the gator is still alive when the trapper comes back to check, they will euthanize it quickly, he said.
Schusser, however, said he goes out of his way — expending extra time and resources — to capture alligators alive. He declined to identify the farm where he said he took the Clearwater gator. He said he has worked to find buyers who intend to keep the alligators alive for breeding, at least for a while, rather than hide buyers or meat processors who will immediately kill them.
"I hate to see the animals destroyed when it’s not necessary," Schusser said.