Forty years ago there were so few alligators, they were put on the endangered species list. Now, every spring, there are so many, they show up in the strangest places — splashing in swimming pools, perched on patios, challenging a sedan for driveway supremacy.
Every year trappers working for the state catch about 8,000 of what are called "nuisance alligators." Longtime trapper Tracy Hansen, 51, has seen it all.
"I once caught one out of a lady's bathroom while she was in the shower," he said. The gator wandered in through an open sliding glass door, heard the water running and decided to join her. Fortunately, Hansen said, "she had a phone mounted over the toilet so she could call for help."
Since it began in 1978, the state's nuisance gator trapper program has seen its share of ups and downs. This week the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will get a report on some potential changes to it.
The big one: Instead of assigning a single trapper to cover a county or two, the wildlife agency would sign a contract with several trappers "with strategically determined complaint loads when a coverage need occurs," according to a report prepared for the commissioners.
But hiring lots of extra trappers to handle the 13,000 complaints pouring in every year might be difficult right now because of the complicated economics of gator-trapping.
"Catching gators isn't a problem," said Hansen, who has been in the business since 1992. "Selling the hides is the problem."
Wildlife experts now estimate about 1 million alligators roam what's left of Florida's wild spaces. As Florida's human population has grown to more than 17 million people, the two species have frequently come into conflict.
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In 2010, the most recent year for which there is a final tally, the state fielded more than 13,000 calls about alligators that had become a nuisance, and trappers caught 5,856. Their average size: 6.7 feet long.
When trappers catch a gator, if it's 4 feet or longer and is considered a threat to people, pets or property, they do not take it out in the woods and turn it loose again. They kill it.
The state spends $210,000 a year paying the trappers a $30-per-gator bounty, but that's just to help them get by in hard times. Instead, they have traditionally made their money by selling the hides.
Hansen, who lives in Fort Myers, sends his dead gators to a company in Lake Placid run by Genie Tillman called the Parker Island Gator Farm. Parker Island has been processing gators since the early 1980s, Tillman said. The deal she offers trappers is as simple as can be.
"She skins them, and keeps the meat for skinning them," Hansen said. Then he gets the hides, which he can sell.
Right now, Tillman said, "there's very good demand for the meat. Not so much for the hides. They're not worth much, especially the wild ones." The hides that do sell are mostly from farm-raised gators, she said.
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Florida gator hides used to attract buyers from around the globe. No more, Hansen said.
"We used to sell a lot to France, but France is about ready to go bankrupt," he explained. "We used to sell a lot to Japan, but we haven't sold any to them since the tsunami."
Meanwhile, the cost of catching the gators — a job that often entails answering a phone call at 3 a.m. and driving 20 or 30 miles to tangle with a wild animal with a nasty bite — has gone up, Hansen said. The reason: the rising price of gas to keep his truck on the road.
Those two economic forces have pushed some gator trappers out of the business. That's what happened to Jim Righter Jr.'s predecessor in Pensacola. Righter, a retired U.S. Navy captain who now sells real estate, had gone on a few gator hunts, and when the trapper job came open, he jumped at the chance to take over.
But it hasn't quite worked out the way he thought it would.
"It's not a business for me," he said. The nearest processing plant is in Port St. Joe, 140 miles away, so "I can't sell the hides because nobody's processing the meat for me."
So until the economy improves, he said, "I'm just kind of waiting it out." But he has no plans to get out of what is, at least for now, an expensive hobby.
"It's a chance to have an opportunity at taking a large alligator," Righter explained. "It's something else to hunt."
Times staff researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]