Karina Sura Paner stood on a golf course recently and scanned a pond for eyes.
She was looking for an alligator — one that had become a nuisance.
It had left the Lutz pond bordering TPC Tampa Bay and waddled up to a house. A woman spotted it next to her garage. Worried for her dog, she launched a broom at it. Then she threw her shoes at it. Then she called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Someone there emailed a permit to Paner.
Paner and her agents have rescued a dozen alligators since January, when she become a state nuisance alligator trapper in Hillsborough County, pulling the reptiles out of ponds west of Interstate 75. She delivers them to a concrete pond in her sanctuary, 2 miles north of the Florida State Fairgrounds.
The state budgeted $210,000 for the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, known as SNAP, this year to respond to an anticipated 15,000 calls. Trappers get a $30 stipend per gator, until the money runs out, which it always does, Linda Collins, a SNAP supervisor said. "The trappers 'payment' is the alligator, which for the most part are processed for their meat and hide," Collins wrote in an email.
They become meat and wallets and boots.
Paner calls that a shame.
"They've been around since dinosaurs," she said. "So, they're not fluffy or cute. But evil?"
• • •
The state has an estimated 1.3 million alligators, a number that has been stable for about a decade. They don't eat for months throughout the winter, said Paner, who has a biology degree from the University of South Florida.
As the sun warms ponds, rivers and marshes, gators start looking for food. Males venture farther out with amorous intentions.
The permits started piling up in Paner's email in April. She chased one that was picking off a flock of ducks in a pond by Tampa Preparatory School, but it got the last duck and slipped off into the Hillsborough River.
It's not as easy as it looks on the popular Animal Plant show Gator Boys, Paner said. She was on the show in January. Editing makes it look quick and dramatic.
Gators have especially keen hearing, and skin that can detect vibrations. It's more a story of patience and luck.
"Sometimes it's frustrating," Paner said. She uses baited traps and a catch pole, a pipe with a noose at the end. "Other trappers take a hook and kill them, but for us, it's a longer process."
Gators can be very wary of humans, but may lose their fear when fed. They aren't very smart, said Lindsey Hord, a biologist with the FWC.
"I suspect their IQ varies between individuals. Just like us," Hord wrote by email. "They certainly can learn. They can be taught, or conditioned, to respond to stimulus. They exhibit some complex instinctive behaviors."
In captivity, gators can live to 100 years of age, but half that in the wild. The largest ever caught in Florida was 14 feet long. Since 1948, when the state started tracking alligator attacks, 357 people reported being bitten by a gator. Twenty-two were fatal, according to the FWC.
Paner has not yet been bitten, but her husband, John Paner, has been many times, never seriously.
He is her designated agent, and does much of the catching. Another of her agents is a 12-year-old boy.
Of the state's 120 trappers, just five, including Paner, are women. She sees it as a way to connect to the natural world. She respects the alligator.
"They've been through so much. It's such a shame to see them be killed, just because they're there," she said. "We're truly encroaching on their territory."
• • •
The Paners check ponds daily from Apollo Beach to Westchase. Back at her sanctuary, called Croc Encounters, they now have more than 50 gators, along with other reptiles. Releasing them isn't an option once they become dependent on humans for food.
Karina met John when she did a college internship at Croc Encounters.
"Ever since I spent time at the sanctuary, I wanted to save them," she said.
The couple offers education classes, summer camps and tours. They take reptiles to nursing homes and to birthday parties. They teach lessons about non-native and native animals, how to coexist and how to be a responsible pet owner. During summers, they travel north as far as New York and Illinois to pick up rescued reptiles from shelters. They are too busy to watch television.
John got his first alligator about 15 years ago. Amos is 11 feet long and weighs more than 500 pounds. He has his own private pen at the sanctuary. Recently, John went into his pen during a feeding. But Amos wouldn't come out of the water.
"He's in a mood," John said. He slapped the filleted carcass of a yellowfin tuna on the shore and yelled, "Amos!"
Amos blew bubbles from his eyes. Too many visitors. Some days he chases people out of his enclosure.
"I still think he would bite me," John said.
The Paners named their first son, John Amos, after his dad and the family pet.
Outside the gate of the sanctuary after a tour, John Amos, 3, tackled his brother, Jake, 2, and proceeded to tie him up, like a gator.
The boys love spending time with the gators, but Karina's mother worries about her daughter. She regularly asks: "When are you going to change careers?"
Never, Karina tells her. She dreams of expanding the 20-acre sanctuary, building a raised boardwalk over a pond where the gators can live in as close to a natural environment as possible.
Maybe then she will also rescue native big cats.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.