TAMPA — Florida's alligator trappers don't shrink from wrestling with big reptiles, but they say they are tired of wrestling with the state's bureaucracy.
They made that clear Wednesday as camo-clad trapper after camo-clad trapper stepped up to a microphone in a hotel ballroom to complain to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about how they have been treated by the state agency that oversees their work.
"There's been a kind of a beatdown on the trappers, feels like," said Scot Barbon, a trapper from Fort Lonesome who has been in the business for 10 years.
The complaints prompted one wildlife commissioner, Brian Yablonski, to suggest it's time the state got out of the nuisance gator business entirely. After all, he said, when he's faced with intrusions by "vicious cockroaches and ants," he doesn't call a state hotline for a free removal service. He calls, and pays for, the services of an exterminator.
But that's not a good comparison, wildlife commission chairman Ken Wright told him.
"Unlike roaches, gators do eat people," Wright said. "You can't just step on them."
Under the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program — SNAP, for short — the state contracts with 50 or so independent trappers to field complaints about alligators that eat pets, invade swimming pools or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves.
The state budgeted $480,500 for the nuisance alligator program this year to handle the roughly 13,000 calls to the alligator hotline each year. About 8,000 gators 4 feet or longer were killed by the nuisance trappers last year.
The state pays the trappers a $30-per-gator stipend, but the trappers are expected to make most of their money off selling the hides and meat from the gators they catch and kill.
However, the global demand for hides has fallen so far that some trappers haven't sold a hide in ages. Meanwhile, the cost of gas to travel to the scene of a gator invasion has gone up.
Yet the popularity of reality television shows that showcase nuisance animal removal has made the gator trapping job incredibly popular, said Harry Dutton, who is in charge of SNAP. Some people would be willing to do the job for free, just for the challenge of it.
So whenever a veteran trapper quits because the job no longer pays enough, Dutton said, the applications that pour in are "phenomenal. It's hundreds."
Recently, SNAP began hiring multiple part-time trappers to cover overlapping areas to test whether that might produce quicker response times to complaints.
Instead, the veteran trappers say, the people they dubbed "hobby trappers" are eating into their meager profits and confusing everyone about who's responsible for which areas. They also sometimes leave complaining homeowners hanging because they can't respond to a complaint quickly while working more than one job, the veteran trappers said.
"With these rotating trappers, you are not increasing efficiency," said Jim Long of Homosassa, who estimated he has worked as a trapper for "half my life." He also complained that he had, at the request of the agency, relocated 24 alligators that were smaller than 4 feet long and thus too small to be killed, and "I got paid for none of it."
The drop in hide prices means the gator trapping program faces a need to evolve to some new form that pays the trappers for what they do for society, said Phil Walters of Tampa, who recently added nuisance gator trapper to his resume as a hunting and fishing guide.
"We put our lives on the line and we're nowhere near fair-market compensated for it," Walters said.
A bigger problem may be that many of the state's residents don't understand that the gators were here first, said Commissioner Kathy Barco. She said she recently heard from a state legislator who was worried about alligators in a pond near a dog walk, so Barco joked about draining the lake and getting rid of all the gators.
"Can you do that?" the legislator asked, according to Barco.
The wildlife commissioners ultimately decided that the big problem was one of communication and told their staff to hold workshops with the trappers to sort out how to fix the situation. But the underlying problem may be that the system that has worked since 1977 simply doesn't work anymore, Yablonski said.
"At some point," he said, "somebody's going to have to put on their big-boy pants and have a big-boy discussion about this."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]