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Precision is needed to be a top gator-skinner. And you can't be scared.

The 3-inch blade sinks into the dead alligator's head and Charlotte Klokis' fingers deftly pull the knife backward - slashing the skin open all the way to the tip of the tail.

She cuts away most of the bony protective skin from its back but leaves three ridges called "scutes" near the tail to identify the work as hers to anyone who inspects or grades the hide.

"This is what we call marking," Klokis said last week. "I've got a pretty good reputation for skinning gators."

At the small plant in Pierson, the lifelong Florida resident has been cleaning alligators for 14 years. She works for Curtis Lucas and Dan Ellis, who as members of the Florida Alligator Trappers Association hunt mostly nuisance animals under contract with the state.

Turning to the next step in cleaning the 7-foot-4-inch, 100-pound creature splayed across the stainless steel table, Klokis uses her gloved left hand to grasp one side of the freshly cut hide as the small razor-sharp knife in her right hand cleanly separates the flesh from the skin.

"You use a teeny-weenie 3-inch knife because it is more agile," Klokis says. "You don't want to damage the skin, and the less meat there is on the skin the better it is for the pressure washer."

Smoothly removing the meat from the skeleton, she pulls out "premium" pork-like tenderloin meat that smells like fish.

"Gator meat does not taste like anything else but gator," she says.

25 to 30 gators a week

About four days a week, Klokis drives 90 minutes from her home in Oak Hill to clean beasts up to 14 feet long. She cleans about 25 to 30 of the reptiles per week. She tenderizes and bags the meat and packs the bags into 5-pound boxes for shipment to restaurants in Volusia County and throughout the country.

And she does a great job of it, says Ellis: "She is a goddess of gator cleaning."

Klokis was unexpectedly inducted into the business of alligator cleaning in 1992 when she responded to a help-wanted ad placed by a meat processing plant east of Orlando. The former fast-food restaurant worker and grocery store employee said she was surprised when she pulled up to the address and did not see any stores.

"I walked into Froehlich's Gator Farm, and I saw only men working there. I touched the carcass and poked at the gator's eyes," Klokis says.

Later, "they called me and said I had the job because I wasn't scared of the gators."

A year later, Lucas found himself without a skinner and a trapper recommended Klokis.

"I told her to come work so I could see what she's got," Lucas says. "After a week, I was sold on her. She was skinning two or three gators faster than I was."

Teaching her fiance

Lucas said Klokis' skill leaves him with more time to trap gators. They earn no money from their contract with the state, and their income comes solely from selling the meat and hides.

"Heck, yeah!" Klokis says when asked if gator cleaning pays better than fast-food or grocery work. "That is why I drive 1 1/2 hours one way from Oak Hill."

Klokis declines to reveal how much money she makes but says she is paid by the foot. She cleans about 300 feet of gator per week.

Lucas won't provide figures either, saying only, "The bigger the gator, the higher the price per foot for cleaning it."

According to the Web site from All American Gator Products, alligator skins are sold by the centimeter across the belly widthwise. Prices can range from $6 up to $19.75 a centimeter. The meat sells for $6 to $10 a pound in Florida, Lucas says.

Along with the money, Klokis says she enjoys conversations when people ask what she does for a living. She also does taxidermy work on alligator heads in the winter when hunting slows down.

Engaged to be married in October, Klokis is teaching her fiance the skill of gator cleaning, which she doesn't plan to give up any time soon.

"I work when I want and I will keep on doing it, even if I have to be in a wheelchair," Klokis says, "even though people always tell me I smell like I just finished cleaning fish."