Backstory: The gator cops

Kevin Garvey, one of 32 Florida trappers, has been busy in the wake of three fatal alligator attacks this month.

For a brief moment, as he struggled to control a rope with a 10-foot alligator thrashing on the end of it beside a suburban canal, Kevin Garvey had to ask himself who was catching whom. The reptile's violent fight had caused the rope to tangle around its body, putting Mr. Garvey just a few feet from its flailing tail and snapping jaws.

As one of only 32 licensed alligator trappers in Florida - and the only one here in heavily populated Broward County - he is well versed in how to handle such situations. But his experience is tempered by the knowledge that man versus alligator is never an even matchup. The last time he dealt with one this big, it had just killed a woman.

"It's pure adrenaline pumping through you," says Garvey. "This alligator starts wrapping himself up in the rope and I'm running out of rope to hold on to. He's bringing himself closer and closer to me. I have to use my judgment to get him to stop rolling, because otherwise I'm in his target zone."

It all ended safely for the trapper, but not so happily for his prey, who concluded the hour-long bout trussed up on the back of a truck bound for a plant that processes the meat and skin for sale.

Garvey has captured 1,000 or so "nuisance" alligators during his 11-year career, removing them from canals, ponds, yards, and swimming pools, hooking them off roads and golf courses. He even extracted one from a balcony in an apartment building after it wandered into an elevator and got whisked up to the third floor. Every capture is sanctioned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC).

Despite all the personal reminders he has had of their formidable strength, one species unnerves Garvey more than alligators: man. "From my standpoint, it's really not that hard a job dealing with alligators," he says, standing beside a canal in Sunrise, 30 miles north of Miami, where a resident has reported being stalked while trimming trees in his yard. "The hardest part of this job is actually dealing with the public - educating them, calming them down, getting them to understand these animals."

With three women killed in the space of six days earlier this month, death by alligator is a hot topic in Florida, where there had previously been only 17 such incidents since 1948. The three attacks - one beside a suburban canal, another in a pond behind some houses, and a third in a remote woodland spring - have caused anxiety in a state that is home to 16 million humans and more than 1 million alligators.

Over the ensuing week, 528 residents called the Florida FWCC - twice the rate during the same period last year - to report marauding reptiles. Wildlife officials say the spike in attacks is sheer coincidence, but point out that more alligators are moving this time of year as they search for water and food at the end of a long dry season. Florida's construction boom means that the ponds and canals where they end up are often in residential areas. "Every gator everyone sees now is a 'nuisance' gator in the public's eyes," Garvey sighs.

Garvey was born and raised in Florida, which helps explain why he spends his days wrestling with reptiles that have teeth like tenpenny nails. His love of the environment and its flora and fauna runs so deep that he has undergone extensive tattoo work to get an Everglades swamp scene - complete with alligators - put on his back. A gold chain with a glistening alligator pendant hangs around his neck. The license tag on his pickup truck bears the message "Protect the panther," a decal on the body adds "Protect the Everglades," and one on the window boasts "Ain't Skeered."

In the back of his truck lie the tools of his trade: a catchpole with a loop of wire at the end that he slips over small alligators like a noose. Larger reptiles are hauled in from the water using a system of hooks, rods, reels, ropes, and sometimes a harpoon that pierces the hide but doesn't kill the alligator. Garvey must then leap on his catch from behind, straddle its back, and put pressure on its eyes to lift the head. Finally, he binds the jaws with duct tape and rope.

With his shorn hair, camouflage shirt, and sturdy boots, Garvey bears the look of a Marine sergeant. But his 180-pound physique, though toned, is surprisingly modest for a man who wrangles alligators up to four times that weight.

Garvey tried other jobs before trapping - in construction and property maintenance. But he didn't find them fulfilling. He thinks trapping animals is providing a service to society and, when he can save them, to the animals. He wanted to be a trapper so badly that he had his name on the waiting list for this post for eight years.

In that sense, Garvey is like many of Florida's gator cops - they harbor a deep fealty to the reptiles. "These trappers aren't out there with the idea that animals are evil," says wildlife biologist Lindsay Hord, coordinator of the FWCC's nuisance alligator program. "They're out there because they appreciate that they're not."

In his spare time, Garvey visits schools to drum into children that humans and alligators can live in relative harmony - and to teach them how. One example: Never take a dog to the water's edge to drink. His two children - Austin, 9, and Kayla, 15 - think what their dad does is "cool."

As he trudges along a canal bank here in Sunrise, just a few miles from where an alligator fatally seized a jogger, Garvey cups his hands and imitates a mating call in the hope of luring his latest target out of hiding. It is a series of brief, gruff bellows, which today elicit no response.

The biggest alligator Garvey ever caught was 13 foot, 4 inches long. Those five feet or larger must be killed when captured: According to the state, they're too big to relocate. If the alligator is under five feet, Garvey will relocate it to the Everglades - a result he prefers. "I've been around animals all my life," he says. "I got into business to defend them, not to give them trouble."

While most attacks are the result of human misjudgment, Garvey accepts that not all alligators keep to themselves. He has seen them climb chain-link fences and heard tearful tales from dog owners who have had them barge through patio screens and seize pets.

He once found a four-foot alligator in the stomach of an eight-footer. Others had footballs, garbage bags, and tennis balls inside them - more proof of suburban, or perhaps alligator, encroachment.

Sometimes, after leaving alligators temporarily trussed with duct tape and rope in the back of his truck outside his house in Pompano Beach, they wriggle free. He found one escapee head-butting a neighbor's front door and had to wrangle another out of his garden pond. Still another shimmied off his truck and into the street, where he performed a "death roll" in front of amazed residents: Alligators can spin up to 100 times a minute to disable or drown their prey.

Garvey knows their jowly jujitsu skills all too well. A scar on one leg testifies to the time an eight-and-a-half-foot alligator rolled him. And he still has a stiff thumb from another encounter with a jaw. "I was afraid when I got bit that my wife would want that to be the end of my career," he says. "But she accepts it's my work. As long as I bring home the money and both my arms and legs, it's OK."

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