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Fighting alligators for a living

A conversation with Robb Upthegrove, a Veteran Marine that became a license alligator trapper.
Rob Upthegrove with a 10-foot 7 inch male alligator captured in New Tampa.
Rob Upthegrove with a 10-foot 7 inch male alligator captured in New Tampa. [ Photo: Courtesy Robb Upthegrove ]
Published Aug. 23, 2020|Updated Aug. 25, 2020

Robb Upthegrove grew up in Okeechobee, where his family had been hunting alligators for 75 years. He retired after a first dangerous career – working on high voltage wires – and became one of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s nuisance alligator trappers eight years ago. Upthegrove, 64, has captured gators stalking ducks in Lakeland’s Lake Morton, lolling in swimming pools and roaming the sidewalks of suburbia. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about what the job is like.

What are the steps to removing a nuisance gator?

The process has two forms to start with. One, an emergency call to law enforcement that the alligator is somewhere it shouldn’t be … (What) we’re going to do is rope him and do a little alligator wrestling, subdue his jaws, and (lift) him to the trailer or the truck. It just depends on the size …

Now the trapping is a permit that comes from the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, and they tell you where the alligator is, the approximate size, and you are authorized to go to that place and try to capture the alligator. Sometimes we go there and we use rods that are made just for capturing alligators, and we cast a line out and try to get a hook snatched in the alligator and as we get him closer to shore – it’s about similar to fighting sharks – then we throw another line that’s got a treble hook in it, a person has attached around the wrist ... When we get him close, we have a pole with a lariat rope, a livestock rope. We will get it around his jaws to his neck, and then we’ll do a little wrestling or working him to get him to the point that we can tape his jaws up.

What does “a little alligator wrestling” involve?

Well, what you do is you work the alligator until he is exhausted. He doesn’t contain his energy; he throws his energy out there. And so you reach a point that he’s exhausted, and you can go in there and capture him ... Two to five pounds of pressure, it takes, to hold the jaws (closed).

And when the jaws are biting down?

They have an estimated 2,500 pounds per square inch crushing power.

What’s the biggest alligator you ever caught?

The biggest one I caught was at east Brandon, 12-foot-8, I think it was.

Robb Upthegrove a license Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision alligator trapper, during the pandemic he cannot relocate alligators as usual.
Robb Upthegrove a license Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision alligator trapper, during the pandemic he cannot relocate alligators as usual. [ Photo: Courtesy Robb Upthegrove ]

Do you work with a partner?

My son, who’s in college, helps me when he’s here … If we get a big gator, we’ll call another trapper to come help us … because they just kind of outweigh us. You’ve got to allow for that. Once the capture begins, you can’t back off of it.

Have you ever been bitten?

No, I’ve had scrapes and cuts from the power of them thrashing around – their scutes, their hide. But I’ve never been bitten by one. My uncles and family always said, “Don’t stick your hand in the mouth. Leave that to the showmen, the gator wrestlers.‘'

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But is it sometimes hard to avoid?

No, our capture protocol is to stay away from that. … There are times at that point that they show energy they didn’t have, and they’ll try to get away from you. They’ll roll, and so what you have to do is completely, all of a sudden, give them rapid distance between you and them or you will get bit.

What do you do with the gators you catch?

It can either go to a farm or go to an amusement facility, like Gatorama … If not, then it goes to a processor, and I’m using two different processors now because of what’s happening with the coronavirus. Some of my gators have to go to Winter Garden … The one that was local in the Tampa Bay area, he shut down … Restaurants are the main destinations for processed meat, and guess what, the restaurants (were) all closed.

And the market for the skins has dropped, it has been reported, in part due to public pressure from animal rights activists.

Right now, the value of hides is the worst it’s been in decades. And that has to do a lot with political correctness.

An alligator is deemed a nuisance if it is at least 4 feet in length and the caller believes it poses a threat to people, pets or property, according FWC. Robb Upthegrove is one of the 24/7 alligator trappers in Florida.
An alligator is deemed a nuisance if it is at least 4 feet in length and the caller believes it poses a threat to people, pets or property, according FWC. Robb Upthegrove is one of the 24/7 alligator trappers in Florida. [ ROBB UPTHEGROVE | Photo: Courtesy ]

Alligators once were seriously endangered in Florida. Now, as you say, they can be hunted.

From August 15 to Nov. 1 is a sanctioned hunt by FWC (the wildlife commission). It’s for population control … The FWC has decided that in certain areas, certain lakes, certain counties, they want the alligator population to be (a certain) level, and so they assign so many alligators to be removed in that area. And the hunters look at where they want to hunt and they put in a lottery for that, and if they get drawn, they can hunt …

They have to dispatch the alligator when they catch it because it’s population control. That means they kill the alligator before they bring it home … Where our alligators, we catch live, because we’re (removing) nuisance alligators. Some of the people will process their own, which means they’ll skin their own. And some will find processors.

You kill your gators at the processor. Are they shot?

Yes, there’s what’s called a kill spot right behind the edge of their skull, where nature has left a spot where they’re not covered by their scutes. And that’s where we take the shot. So we do it humanely.

If you need to report a nuisance alligator, call the state Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-392-4286.

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