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Locals mourn the loss of 13-foot gator named Big Al

The 13-footer known as Big Al, shown in 2010, had been seen near Boyd Hill for years. Locals say he avoided people.

Photo by George L. Heinrich

The 13-footer known as Big Al, shown in 2010, had been seen near Boyd Hill for years. Locals say he avoided people.

ST. PETERSBURG — Big Al, locals said, wasn't particularly fond of humans. He knew how to act and when to stay away.

"He was a lover," said Judy Ellis, a Lakewood Estates resident. "He'd just sit around all day and smile at you."

The 13-foot alligator was trapped and killed Sept. 26 in a small lake north of the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. He was the eighth-largest alligator ever killed in the state and the biggest trapped in Pinellas for Jovan Johannessen, the 34-year-old Clearwater hunter who pulled him from the water.

People who lived and worked around the lake protected Big Al. They'd deny his existence to strangers who inquired about the fabled monster in the lake. They dismissed those who called him dangerous. When they did speak of him, it was in hushed tones.

"In retrospect, it's very funny," said Jim House, who's on the Friends of Boyd Hill board. "And it was futile."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said Johannessen shouldn't have hunted Big Al within city limits. And while they investigate the killing, those familiar with the 770-pound reptile mourn.

"The lake will be different without that big gator out there," local biologist George Heinrich said. "Like we lost a little bit of wildness."

• • •

House started a petition on MoveOn.org asking authorities to charge Johannessen with a crime. By Tuesday afternoon, it had more than 950 signatures. The goal is to deliver it to Mayor Bill Foster when 1,000 people have signed.

"Coming in and hunting in an otherwise protected area is only second to coming into a zoo for some protected hunting," House said. "This is completely unacceptable."

It wasn't clear Tuesday if Johannessen would be punished. He wasn't hunting in the preserve, which only stretches along one shore of Lake Maggiore. His Pinellas County hunting permit didn't cover the shores of Lake Maggiore or the smaller body of water known as Lake Eli, where Al was most likely trapped, because both are within city limits.

But Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman Lt. Gary Morse said someone at the commission told Johannessen he could hunt there. It shouldn't absolve him of blame, Morse said, but it does complicate the issue.

"It clearly states on the hunter's documents that enclosed areas of cities and municipalities are not legal to hunt," he said.

Morse said it will take time to sort through the legal intricacies and couldn't say what charge the trapper could face.

"This is certainly of concern to the community, and we understand their feelings on this issue, and we will do the right thing," he said.

• • •

The last survey estimated about 200 alligators live around the preserve. Most females are about 6 to 8 feet long, House said, and males don't grow much bigger.

At 13 feet, Big Al stood out. He also had distinctive snout marks.

"The only real protection that gator ever enjoyed was that the people who knew him best never talked about him," House said.

When people complain about the preserve's alligators, Ellis said she tries to educate them.

It's best to leave them be until they decide to move, she said, but acknowledged they can be dangerous for pets. But that's easily solved, she said: "Don't let the cat out if there's a gator in your yard."

Barbara Stalbird, a preserve supervisor, said she thinks most people who live nearby don't have a problem with them.

"I think we have a better tolerance for them because we live so closely with them," she said.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or cwiseman@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

Locals mourn the loss of 13-foot gator named Big Al 10/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 11:37pm]
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