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Rebecca Renner dives deep in ‘Gator Country’

A journalist and Florida native offers an amazing story of poaching, past and present.
 
Rebecca Renner is the author of "Gator Country."
Rebecca Renner is the author of "Gator Country." [ Flatiron Books ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

By most measures, alligators are a conservation success story.

Plummeting toward extinction in the 1960s, they now number in the millions throughout Florida. If you live in the Sunshine State and pay any attention to your surroundings, you know that any body of water bigger than a bathtub is home to gators.

Although they are not the most cuddly of charismatic megafauna, they are the animal most identified with the state — the Florida Man of Florida critters.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. In her new book, “Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades,” journalist and Florida native Rebecca Renner tells the fascinating tale of alligator poaching, present and past.

Growing up in Central Florida, Renner had her first glimpse of an adult gator in the wild near her home when she was 7 years old. “This encounter would prove to be the beginning of a lifelong fascination with reptiles, especially alligators,” she writes.

She was teaching high school in her home town in 2017 when she heard one of her students talk about something called Operation Alligator Thief. That led her to one of the main stories she tells in this book.

We may tend to think of poachers as people with too much money and free time who pose with big guns, big grins and one foot on the head of a dead elephant. Despicable as they are, they’re a minority. Most people who poach — take animals illegally — do it to make a living.

Alligator farming is legal, with the reptiles harvested for their meat, hides and the body parts like claws and baby heads that end up on keychains in tourist gift shops.

The catch is that, unlike domesticated animals, gators rarely reproduce in captivity. So to keep a gator farm in business, the farmer must harvest wild-laid eggs every year, or pay someone else to do it.

That egg harvesting is legal, too, but strictly limited in terms of how many eggs can be taken, where and when. Depending on conditions (such as hurricanes and floods that can wash away alligator nests), the price of eggs fluctuates, in recent years as low as $5 per egg and as high as $60. And that’s where poaching comes in.

Renner builds the book around the stories of two poachers. One is the legendary Clarence “Peg” Brown, a Gladesman who in the first half of the 20th century was “the most deadly and prolific alligator poacher who ever lived. The stories about him seemed impossible. He had killed thousands of gators, they said. He had bamboozled rangers, played tricks on them in the swamps, and he always got away.”

But Peg had died in 1986, so Renner travels to Chokoloskee in the Ten Thousand Islands to talk to his son, Jonnie, and others who knew him.

Peg was hardly the last of the poachers, though. That rumor from a student led Renner to Jeff Babauta, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer who was just a few years from retirement when, in the mid-2010s, he was asked to go undercover to bust a ring of poachers.

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Babauta hadn’t done undercover work before. A former K-9 officer, he was a straight-edges, by-the-book guy who loved his wife, son and dogs.

He also loved the Everglades and Florida’s other wild places, and he knew them well. Soon he found himself using that knowledge in his new identity as Jeff Blackledge, a middle-aged goofball with an unexpected inheritance who has decided to try to get his life together by starting an alligator farm.

The idea, his supervisor told him, was that this would give him opportunities to ask all kinds of dumb questions and connect with people who sold gator eggs, legally or not. So Babauta/Blackledge starts the Sunshine Alligator Farm near Arcadia, on land with a collection of ramshackle buildings. (Renner notes that the agency’s budget is so tight that Babauta is required to single-handedly make the farm a going business that pays for itself.)

Mending the buildings and gathering a supply of kiddie pools for baby gators to live in is the simple part. Much harder for Babauta is the performance required — staying in character, clocking every response from other people — and the loneliness of having little contact with family and colleagues with whom he can be himself.

But over the course of more than a year, he gradually makes contact with a group of harvesters led by an enigmatic man called Robert. At first they seem to be playing by the rules, but as they take Blackledge into their circle it becomes clear they’re not. And these are people whose normal work equipment includes firearms.

He learns the most about them the hard way: going out on egg-harvesting forays around the state. They locate nests with high-tech tools like helicopters and GPS, but they harvest them the old-fashioned way: by creeping through the swamp and lifting the lid of branches off a nest.

Mother gators build those nests with a reeking mix of plant matter and their own feces and urine. The eggs are fragile and must be marked to keep them right side up, or the babies inside will be crushed. And while Robert’s crew is marking eggs with a Sharpie and stowing them gently in a cooler, there’s a good chance Mama is nearby and will come hissing and thrashing out of the swamp after them.

Renner weaves together the often thrilling true-crime story of the undercover operation with her own investigation of Peg Brown. “Gator Country” is also, in parts, a memoir and a loving natural history of the irreplaceable Everglades.

Along with the reader, Renner and Babauta both come to a deeper understanding of poachers and their relationship to the land. Yes, illegal hunting and harvesting can damage a species and the systems it is part of in ways we are still learning about.

But that damage is drops in the bucket compared to the torrent of habitat destruction caused by metastatic development, motivated by greed and facilitated by politics.

“The story of the Everglades,” Renner writes, “isn’t just one of environmental strife and a need for redemption. It’s one of class struggle, too: All environmental stories are if only you dig past the topsoil.”

Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades

By Rebecca Renner

Flatiron Books, 288 pages, $29.99

Meet the author

Rebecca Renner will be in conversation about “Gator Country” with journalist and author Craig Pittman at 7 p.m. Thursday at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.