Gators? ‘The mouth is the first thing you get under control’

By Tom Poland

Like a lot of eastern Georgians I grew up with no contact with gators. My writing career, however, would put me around gators far more than I ever imagined. Two summers ago I drove over to Woods Bay State Park, a Carolina bay. No one but me was there. No ranger. No visitors. As I stepped out of my car I heard what sounded like a television dropping into water. “That’s got to be a gator,” I thought. With camera and tripod over my shoulder I headed for the boardwalk that crossed the bay’s watery interior. About 40 yards out I set my tripod onto the boardwalk. That’s when a gator exploded from beneath my feet across the water. I scared him and he scared me. That’s the closest I’ve been to a gator in the wild and it’s as close as I care to come. I interviewed a man who has captured and studied gators, and more than once pried a gator jaw from around a fellow’s hand. Phil Wilkinson has studied gators some 40 years. One reporter referred to him as the “Gator Guy.” Wilkinson caught Big Bertha, at 9 feet 7.75 inches the largest female gator ever caught. That record was broken in Florida 10 years later by 1 inch by not one but two gators caught the same day in Lake Apopka. Wilkinson caught both. To catch a gator you lock its jaws. The top snout is weak. Once you bind it to the lower snout, the gator can’t open its jaws. “The mouth is the first thing you get under control because that’s where they can do the damage.” The tail’s trouble too. A gator can slam you with it. Wilkinson nicknamed one gator “Truck Biter.” Over the years, he had caught the gator several times and each time it was bigger. The last time he caught it the gator was 12 foot 1. Two biologists from Argentina, Andre and Pablo, were with Wilkinson to see how he captured gators because they used a similar approach with caimans. “When we turned him loose, he was pretty mad,” said Wilkinson. “The gator ripped the fender off a nearby truck.” So, what’s it like to catch a big gator that can rip off a fender? You’d think it’s a scary enterprise, but Wilkinson said everything goes on too fast to get frightened. “Frightened doesn’t get you anywhere. You got to be thinking about something besides being frightened. If you’re going to get ‘et,’ be brave and get ‘et.’ You go about it in a tried and true way. You have a crew that works with you; each person has something to do. It’s like doing a surgical operation. If there’s a dangerous aspect we try to eliminate it.” Close to 40 years of experience honed Wilkinson’s approach to capturing gators. Still, he’s had a gator get others. “Back in ’93 the crew I was working with had a girl, Sudy, with it.” He had two fellows working with him as well, Mark and Andrew. “We had caught a lot of gators one morning and Mark, who was getting tired, warned the crew to be careful. He told them catching gators was like riding a motorcycle. Just when you think you know how, you wind up with handlebars up your behind. The next gator got both of Mark’s hands in its mouth.” Wilkinson reached for a long narrow chisel. “Sudy immediately jumped on the alligator to keep it from rolling. Had the gator been able to roll, turn, or jerk its head around it could have done a lot of damage.” Wilkinson ran the chisel into the gator’s mouth and pried down on the gum. “I said, ‘Mark, when she loosens up you get the hell out of there.’ She did. Mark pulled his hands free and we clamped her down and finished doing what we had to do while Mark sat over there and bled.” Andrew took Mark to the hospital and got him some shots. Though it looked like he had caught his hand in a sewing machine, Mark was at work the next day. That is but a glimpse of how you catch a gator. Want your hand or arm in gator jaws? Don’t try to catch a gator of any size. Leave that to the Gator Guy and other pros that have the tools and know-how and a valuable thing called experience.

Author: Rachel Howell

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