A man made for wilder times

Tom Shirley sits on a 12-foot alligator he caught during a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission tagging research project in 1968. Photographer Toby Massey snapped this award-winning photo that appeared in the Miami Herald, the Miami News, and won Best Picture of the Month in Life magazine.

University Press of Florida

Tom Shirley sits on a 12-foot alligator he caught during a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission tagging research project in 1968. Photographer Toby Massey snapped this award-winning photo that appeared in the Miami Herald, the Miami News, and won Best Picture of the Month in Life magazine.

In his 30 years patrolling the Everglades, former wildlife officer Tom Shirley saw his share of panthers and poachers. But it's his tales of tangling with alligators that really gets your skin crawling.

"I always tried to take the soft approach," said Shirley, who worked for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission from 1955 to 1985. "I always tried to be as gentle as possible, because a big gator can pretty much do anything it wants to do."

Shirley, whose new book, Everglades Patrol, is available Monday, liked to climb into the water near a gator hole.

"Then I would stick my hands in there until I felt it and sort of coax it out," said Shirley, 81. "Then, when it bumped me in the belly, I'd grab it."

Shirley's system worked more often than not. "Every now and then, all hell would break loose," he said. "But that is how it goes with gators."

By the late 1950s, alligators were hunted to near extinction in Florida. In 1967, the state's most famous reptile was listed as an endangered species. The following year, Lt. Shirley took several of his officers into the Everglades to capture and tag the larger specimens they could find.

"I came across a big 12-footer, and we had a photographer from the Miami Herald tagging along," Shirley recalled. "Well, after I got it all tied up, I sat down the only place I could, which was on top of the gator, and had myself a Coke. That picture ended up everywhere."

Shirley's calm, cool, collected attitude made him a legend among gladesmen.

"I was getting paid to do what I love," Shirley said in a recent telephone interview from his home in South Florida. "When I was a boy that is what I would do for kicks: go catch gators. It seemed like we always had a least one pet gator living in our bathtub."

Shirley's book, published by University Press of Florida, chronicles a period in the state's history when the Everglades went from a pristine wilderness to a flooded wasteland thanks to what he considers the misguided efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers.

"They made a mess of it," he said. "The dikes cut off the natural water flow and the controlled floods ended up killing all the wildlife."

Some of the most incredible photos in Everglades Patrol are of Shirley jumping off a moving airboat to "catch" stranded deer with his bare hands. "You had to be quick," he said. "Sometimes you got kicked and a little beat up."

Shirley often worked alone, spending many nights on the scattered islands, listening to the sound of poachers' airboats off in the distance.

"It was like Florida's version of the wild west," said University of Florida professor Jack E. Davis, author of An Everglades Providence. "And Tom Shirley was Marshall Matt Dillon."

Davis said the Everglades had a unique brand of outlawry tied to the natural bounty of the region.

"There were people stealing plants, palm trees, killing alligators, panthers and bears, left and right," Davis said. "The men and women who worked there were pretty special: part law enforcement officer and part conservationist. They did it all."

Shirley carried a gun, a German Luger, which he preferred for its accuracy. A couple of questionable characters once questioned his skill with the weapon.

"So they had me shoot a quarter, then a nickel, then a penny," he said. "Finally I shot the head off a cigarette hanging out of a fellow's mouth. He said, 'That'll do.' "

After his retirement from the agency that later became a part of the present-day Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Shirley became a staunch advocate for the wild lands he spent much of his life trying to protect.

"For so many years, he had no power to stop the destruction," said Patsy West, an ethnohistorian who lives near Shirley in Fort Lauderdale. "So when he finally could make a difference, he didn't hold anything back."

When it comes to the Everglades, few people share Shirley's knowledge and perspective.

"He is really one of a kind," she said. "That is why this book is important to all Floridians."

A man made for wilder times

09/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 6, 2012 8:19pm]

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