Newsmakers


On Duty with Florida Gator Trappers

The job is tough and certainly doesn't pay well. So why do they do it?

 

There. Can you see it? Shine your light over the water. See the red flash? That’s the gator’s eyes. We’ve got ’em.

Tony and Beth Hamm have been out at South Park in Ave Maria for only about 15 minutes when they came across the gator. The Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program hotline got a call earlier. A gator near the dog park was getting a bit too close for comfort. A state official called Beth Hamm. She’s one of the 100 or so certified gator trappers in Florida.

They’ve come out on a damp Thursday night, once Tony, her husband and one of her certified agents, is off his job as a mechanic. I join them soon after. They’ve found this gator somewhat quickly. Sometimes it’s hours, days. Sometimes at night the gator sinks to the bottom of the lagoon and the surrounding world will go on as if the creature doesn’t exist. Not tonight.

Tony has been looking for eye-shine. You see, gators have a special layer of cells in their eyes that we don’t have. It allows them to see better at night. It also reflects red when light bounces off of it.

Beth and Tony can tell you all about gators—the bone structure of their back that gives them protection but also flexibility, the way just a swipe of the head or tail can knock you off your feet. They can talk about their strength, their resilience. They’ve experienced that firsthand. They catch gators because they love gators. It’s a healthy respect for the animal—perhaps not a mutual respect, as we’ll soon see. But Beth and Tony understand.

Tony approaches with a rod and reel. The line is braided, about as tough as it comes. At the end of the line is a nasty looking, three-pronged hook. Beth has a length of flexible PVC pipe with a circle of thick wire at the end. Tony casts three times into the pond. The third time he’s got it, the hook snagging the thick skin. Tony reels it to shore like a prize catch, rod bending from the struggle. He hauls it out of the water. It opens its mouth wide and hisses. “Those are some pretty teeth,” Beth says.

At this moment, the unprepared, like myself, can get a bit nervous. The gator is still loose. Anything can happen. But this is routine for Beth and Tony. Beth slips the noose around the neck to control it. Then she sits on it. The sound of its tail swishes the wet grass. She forces the strong jaws shut then wraps them with black tape. They switch and Tony sits on it until the gator, a female, is calm. “Easy, momma,” he says, patting its nose.

 

The history of man’s relationship with the American alligator in Florida is a tumultuous one. For the first half of the last century, the gator skin trade flourished. It was sold to make belts, purses, shoes. The gator population was decimated. In 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service marked the alligator as endangered. It was not until the early 1970s, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, that state and federal officials finally cracked down on the gator trade. The alligator population started to climb again and by 1977, the species was upgraded from endangered to threatened.

Around the same time, the state started contracting with hunters to capture alligators deemed a “nuisance.” This is where people like Beth Hamm come in. When the statewide hotline gets a call (and deems a gator a nuisance), the trappers are given the permit to go get the gator (first contact with the resident who called is required within 24 hours, and then they have 45 days to get it until the permit runs out). In 2014, about 6,700 gators were captured statewide, barely a fraction of the 1.3 million that exist in the wild. But those few will get themselves into precarious positions at times. They’ll make it into garages, sand traps, offices. (Yes, automatic doors respond to gators, too.) Beth once got an emergency call from a couple late at night. They had decided to go skinny-dipping in their home pool. The husband wanted to turn the lights on. The wife didn’t. Thankfully, he did.

The worst time is the summer. That’s mating season. Male gators will force smaller ones out of lagoons, and the smaller ones will end up in a Publix parking lot or somewhere like that. It gets worse when it rains. Flooding expands the boundaries of a gator’s habitat, causing it to venture places it normally shouldn’t.

In these cases, whatever you do, don’t bother the gator. Call the hotline. When someone like Beth Hamm shows up, she’ll talk to you about what she’s going to do and gather information about the situation. From there, let the trappers do their jobs.

Fellow Collier County trapper Ray Simonsen recalls a scene. He’s crouched behind a bush, following a track of bubbles across the lagoon, the faint sign of a gator he’s been searching for hours. He’s got a fishing pole in one hand. He wears a long-sleeve shirt with “Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission” in bold black letters on the back. Out front, his truck proclaims the same. Yet, a friendly neighbor ambles down, “Hey, whatcha doing?”

“I’m not down here looking at the ants,” he thinks, and before he knows it the track of bubbles is gone.

He’s too polite to actually say anything that smart. Part of his job is public relations, educating the public on his job and the proper treatment of gators. Main point: Don’t feed them. That’s when they get too friendly. And then, the trappers are involved. There’s an old saying: A fed gator is a dead gator. 

Most of the captured gators are killed and their meat sold. Other gators, depending on the permit of the trapper, can be kept alive and relocated. Both Simonsen and Beth Hamm have that proper approval and typically move their gators to a farm in LaBelle.

The author "bravely" stands by as Tony Hamm subdues a gator.

They worked together frequently. They come to each other’s aid. It’s a “mutual respect,” Simonsen says. He knows the Hamms as dependable and hardworking. Their heads are in the right place, too. Both respect the animals. Simonsen sees himself as a public servant. He was a firefighter in New Jersey before he came to Florida. Catching wildlife is now his way of keeping the public safe. Tall and solidly built, he’s the guy you want on your side in a fight—with a gator, at least. 

Beth at first appears the opposite. She doesn’t cut an intimidating presence—short and dressed in jeans, hoodie and ball cap (sometimes in green Crocs). But she can muscle a gator, like the time when both she and Tony were on one and it simply got up and started walking away, mouth wide open. Beth reached an arm around, essentially putting it in a headlock to shut its jaws, then used the free hand to wrap the tape around the mouth. Sometimes, if it’s a large gator, she goes out with help. Mostly, she goes out by herself, like Simonsen.

“We may make it look easy,” Simonsen says. “But we’ve been doing this for a while. You don’t take anything for granted.”

 

Between the hunting and traveling and waiting, gator trapping really isn’t that much of a business venture. A captured gator is worth $30 from the state. Some trappers, if properly permitted, can profit off the hide or meat. But that requires licensing, which costs money, in addition to the other licenses trappers are required to get. Given the frequency of capture (in the cooler months, Beth could go a week without getting a call), it’s not worth it financially. “You really have to love it,” Beth says.

Beth wasn’t looking to get into the business at first. Tony is the Naples native. He grew up hunting with his grandfather. He met Beth when her family moved down from Ohio in high school. Back then, she didn’t even like seafood. “I used to call her my city girl,” he says. “I guess I ruined her—for the better.”

Tony had wanted to become a licensed gator trapper. But he works six days a week. He wasn’t a good fit for emergency calls and such. So, Beth put her name in. She raises their three teenage daughters. But she had the flexible schedule the state needed. She got the contract.

So there they are in a moonlit park on that damp Thursday night, Tony walking a gator like it’s a dog on a leash through the grass. He’ll eventually pick it up and carry it to their covered pickup truck, aka their mobile office. It’s got space rods, wire, poles and, on this night, a 3 ½-foot gator Beth caught the other day.

They’ve measured it: 6-foot-8, 19-inch tail circumference (numbers the state requires). They’ve noted the shades of green that form a pattern on the side of the gator. It’s like a fingerprint, the best way to judge whether they got the right one. Beth notices that it has a claw missing—probably the result of a male gator biting it during mating, she explains. Mating among gators can be an act of violence. It’s not uncommon to see a female with an arm missing.

She can talk gators all night. But it’s time to move on. They’re not sure if this is the right one. So, they’re going to take one more lap around the lagoon. And off they go, head lamps on, looking for the red flash.