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The Grim Alligator

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

It is doubtful if Longfellow ever saw an alligator; certainly he never saw save in imagination the mournful beauty of the Louisiana swamps that he describes so vividly in “Evangeline.” Yet there could be no happier epithet for the Western Hemisphere’s greatest saurian than the New England poet’s, “the grim alligator.” This strange reptile, a true survivor of the Age of Monsters, is generally thought to be confined in his North American range to Florida and the Gulf Coast. But he is found as far north as North Carolina. Since boyhood days I have observed him chiefly in the lagoons, rivers, and artificial lakes near my plantation home in South Carolina. Though not so amiable or decorative, he is there as authentic a part of that semi-tropical landscape as the mocking bird, the white egret, and the nonpareil. Many are the adventures I have had with this cold-blooded and cold-hearted brigand; and a recounting of these may serve to reveal in part his habits and his character. Despite his grimness, his savage strength, his sinister stealth, his treachery, he has perhaps some redeeming features; at any rate, he is always interesting, a living representative of the ancient days of the earth,

When through fern-forests roared the plesiosaur, Locked with the giant bat in ghastly war.

About a mile from my plantation house is a very large natural lagoon in the pinelands known as Jones’ Pond. One summer day, toward the fervid close of a great drought which had all but dried the pond, I was driving down the broad sandy road toward home. At some distance I discerned on this woodland highway a huge black shape. Approaching (to the quite apparent dread and disgust of my horse), I discovered the creature to be a huge bull alligator that was making his ponderous way from the drought-stricken pond to the distant river. As an overland journey for one of these submarines is a most tedious affair, I knew that I would have time to drive on to the house, get the proper equipment, and return and capture the astray leviathan. A mule and cart, a Negro, a stout rope, and a long pole were all that were needed. In the course of an hour I returned, to find that he had pulled himself along for only forty yards or so. In the water one of the swiftest and most deft of acrobats, he is never truly at home on land. He crawls almost as slowly as the turtle does, leaving on the sand a wide smooth track made by his ponderous body, a track on the edges of which can be discerned the deep, almost painful scorings made by his feet.

“Alligator legs ain’t made for walking,” a Negro once said to me, describing the situation exactly. The legs and feet of alligators are the counterparts of those of land turtles: short, fleshy, and strong, but set at an outward-flaring angle, and designed primarily for swimming, secondarily for crawling, and hardly at all for supporting weight.

Reaching my stranded dreadnaught, I prepared to take him home. He was fourteen feet long, and weighed more than half a ton. Because of a commendable phlegmatism of nature, a mule had been pressed into this dubious service instead of a horse. A mule’s emotional nature is usually either entirely absent or else is in definite reverse; and this one showed no reaction whatever to what he saw full in his path.

On my approach, the bull alligator rose stiffly and awkwardly on his legs, until his vast body was clear of the sand. He then tried to rush me, his huge jaws wide open. This charge amounted to little more than a swift but feeble waddle; menacing enough it was, but futile and spasmodic. He came on for perhaps ten feet; then he sank heavily to earth, suspiring a vast dragon-sigh ere his jaws closed with a vicious snap. The teeth of the alligator do not meet; but either jaw is supplied with a row of sockets into which the teeth of the opposite jaw fit snugly when the mouth is closed.

The Negro and I made a slipknot with the rope, our game being to hold this open in front of the ‘gator and make him walk through it until it could be drawn taut behind his front legs. After some maneuvering, with the open loop held in | front of him, and after a considerable degree of prodding j from behind, we made the bull walk into the trap. Then we j drew the knot fast under his armpits. Both of us then j mounted the tail of the cart, which had been backed close to j our captive, and then began the pull of our lives. We had j fastened a section of round log across the back of the cart, j and over this we drew our rope. His dead weight was im- j mense; and when we essayed to lift him, his massive aerial | struggles made our efforts vain. We sat down on the sides | of the cart to consider.

“Boss,” said my Negro, “why is we make dis mule carry him? Ain’t he got his four foot?”

Inasmuch as the pace of the normal plantation mule is almost synchronized to that of a lumbering overland-cruising alligator, we started the mule (no mule has a self-starter). While at first our captive rebelled, sulked mightily, and permitted himself to be dragged, yet after a time, so accommodating was our pace, he propelled himself along with ponderous dignity. We were going riverward; and possibly he sensed that we were, a fact that exactly suited his plans. In about an hour we reached the plantation yard in triumph.

But just what to do with a captive alligator is one of those unanswerable questions. Telling my Negro to hold him, I went into the house to get a camera. While I was rummaging in a closet in search of a roll of films, I heard a great outcry and commotion in the backyard; but I thought that some Negroes were merely exclaiming over the size of the great reptile. I was all wrong: reaching the back door a few minutes later, I was just in time to see my Negro being literally dragged into the river, which is only a few yards from the house, by the escaping bull. He had smelled and probably had seen the friendly water; and when he once started for that sanctuary, there was no stopping him. He made good his escape, carrying my rope with him. As the loop in the end was tied with a bowline, and would therefore remain open, doubtless the whole thing slipped from him, or else rotted away in the muddy waters of the Santee.

As my place has a long river-frontage, and as the alligators were numerous and always a great menace to stock, I used to shoot and catch on lines a great many of them. One huge bull that I shot gave me as uneasy a five minutes as I ever spent in my life.

My Negro companion Prince paddled me up the river in our sixteen-foot canoe. On a muddy bank we located a terrible brute of an alligator, and one shot from my .405 rifle apparently put an end to his long and murderous career. Deciding to take him home, we laboriously dragged him into the canoe. His head was under the bow, and his tail projected beyond the stern. Relaunching our rather unsteady craft, we were concerned over the depth at which she sat in the water. There was a leeway of only about three inches between the gunwales and the water-line. Such was the bulk of the alligator that, if we wanted to sit down, we had to sit on him. This we proceeded gingerly to do. Prince was more than dubious over the whole affair. “Cap’n,” he protested, “some things don’t belong in a boat.”

However, the river was calm, we managed to balance the canoe, and all went well until we were near the middle of the great stream, which at that point is deep, treacherous, and very wide. As both Prince and I had on hip-boots of rubber, we were not exactly dressed for swimming.

About the time when we were congratulating ourselves that we were the men who knew how to kill a master bull and take him home in triumph, beneath me I felt a sudden contorting movement; and though I dared not look back at Prince, I was sure that he, like myself, was experiencing for the first time what it means to be sitting on an earthquake with the great deep all about.

Our supposed dead bull was coming to life; moreover, he was intent on one thing—on reaching his native element.

“He’s gwine overboard,” Prince warned.

I was of the identical opinion, seeing that he was going somewhere, and had nowhere else to go.

Foreshortening his huge body until it bulged monstrously, he pulled his head out from under the bow; then jerked it to one side and upward until it rested on the gunwale of the canoe. This awkard maneuver on his part caused us to ship so much water that, had there been any waves running, we should have been submerged. More by signs than by speech, Prince and I communicated to each other the desperate strategy that the occasion seemed to call for: we had to throw all our weight to starboard while our monstrous cap- tive crawled overboard to port. This he proceeded to do, with no consideration whatsoever for the plight into which his cumbersome gyrations put us. When once he had his head and his forepaws on the gunwale, he pulled and pushed himself forward, while we had to lean farther and farther out over the opposite side of the canoe. The critical moment we knew, of course, would come when his tremendous weight would suddenly be released. As this moment approached, we prepared to throw our own weight back in the opposite direction. Had all of him gone overboard at one time, we should have been decidedly out of luck; but he slithered over gradually. At last, with a derisive shove of his hindpaws and a satiric wave of his tail, he vanished into the yellow tide,

After it was over, Prince and I found ourselves sitting in a boat half full of water, under which lay my rifle. But we were thankful to have escaped as we did. Two days later we found the body of the bull on a sand-bar near the mouth of the river. With all reptiles and, indeed, with most creatures that possess a wild inheritance, alligators have this disconcerting trait of coming to life after the obsequies.

The term of their natural life equals or exceeds that of man. I have raised a great many alligators, giving them living conditions that I knew would be favorable to their growth; but they develop very slowly. I should say that one does not reach his maximum size under thirty years; and he lives on with easy indefiniteness. He becomes more rusty and crusty, both in appearance and in temper. He is likely to haunt one arm of a lagoon or one bend of a river, and hold his domain against all comers; he develops uncommon sagacity, his senses, especially his hearing, becoming keener with age. Though I have seen hundreds of these great creatures killed, I never found one dead from natural causes, though unquestionably every form of life is subject to its own peculiar diseases. The largest alligator I ever saw measured sixteen feet, nine inches, and weighed about fourteen hundred pounds. The canine tusks of this great bull were four inches long.

Another bull that I measured was fourteen feet. This monster had met a most strange and terrible fate; and the mystery of it I have not solved to this day. I came upon him one December day deep in the fragrant heart of the great Santee Club game preserve, the owners of which had allowed me to range their estate in order to make wild-life observations.

In that particular latitude hibernation is and is not an established thing. North of that line there is systematic hibernation; south of it, there is little of it. Hence in my country one is likely to run across, in the dead of winter, creatures that are supposed to be asleep. I have seen both alligators and rattlesnakes abroad during every month of the year. Their hibernating slumbers seem to be fitful, and any balmy day may lure them out of their dens.

This bull that I found had evidently come out of a lagoon, intending to crawl to Blake’s Marsh, a few hundred yards distant. But disaster had overtaken him. I came upon him lying in a little arena ringed by great yellow pines. Something had done him to death. Both eyes were gone. His entire body bore innumerable bruises and deep slashes. One leg was broken. The space in which he lay had been torn and trampled by the fury of the combatants. A rain subsequent to the fray prevented my identifying the conqueror. Nor was it an easy thing for me to decide just what had attacked him. There could hardly have been in that neighborhood another alligator so large as to be able easily to manhandle this one. The fell work might possibly have been that of one of the burly stags of the preserve, which in the mating season, that was then on, develop traits of Satanic truculence. But a creature such as this dead giant could surely, with his powerful tail and his clashing jaws, have held his own against any whitetail deer. The only other possible assailant would be a wild boar; but it was not likely that a single hog, however large and fierce, would take on his inveterate enemy.

But a herd of razorback hogs could have done this thing. Of all the denizens of the lonely pinelands these creatures are, in a sense, the most dangerous. In a herd they may attack almost any living thing; and their mob-power is irresistible. With a grim nonchalance they will wade into anything. I have seen one kill and eat with the utmost unconcern a seven-foot diamondback rattlesnake, A crowd of these hyena-like creatures must have attacked the old bull on his overland journey; and in their butchery of him they employed a needless and devilish mutilation, which may or may not have manifested a kind of vengeance for the heavy toll he had taken for years on the whole race of razorbacks in the preserve.

While the hog is one of the commonest victims of the alligator, the dog is perhaps the favorite. Any dog that swims in alligator-infested waters is doomed. So avid is the alligator’s appetite for all things canine that it is easy to call His Barbarous Majesty to you. Just go quietly to the edge of a lagoon, and bark like a dog treeing a squirrel. The imitation does not have to be exact to bring results. Soon you will see a snout and two eyes coming along the surface of the water toward you. Some Negro alligator hunters use this method regularly in decoying their game.

Other victims are fish, waterfowl (especially wild ducks), raccoons, occasionally a deer, and nearly all kinds of stock. I have known an alligator to kill and devour a cow. Her fate became known to me in a peculiar manner. When she disappeared in the autumn she was wearing a small brass bell. The nature of her fate became evident to me only when, upon killing a great bull alligator the following spring, I found the bell in his stomach!

The throat of an alligator is so small that he does not immediately devour his larger forms of prey. He secretes them in some noisome lair until decay sets in; then he tears them apart and eats them piecemeal. Like most predatory wild creatures, the alligator is strongly cannibalistic, and seldom hesitates to eat the young and the injured of his own tribe. I have watched an old mother shepherding her quaint brood of thirty young from the nest in a sandy hillock to the water, a hundred yards distant, where the bull was lying in wait to devour his own children. It is a most interesting thing in nature to discover that, though the mother leaves her eggs to be hatched by the heat of the sun, nevertheless she seems to know, to the very hour, when they will be hatched; for she is usually on hand to give her babies safe convoy to the water.

On one occasion I caught on a line an alligator about nine feet long. As I approached him in a boat, I noticed that he kept turning over, showing now his black back and now his white belly. I thought that he was merely making a struggle to free himself. Coming nearer, however, I became aware of a monstrous shape that showed itself, then vanished beside the alligator on the line. When I landed my ‘gator, f

I found him already dead from fearful wounds dealt him by some giant of his own tribe. Finding the alligator on the line defenseless, this other one had attacked him as legitimate prey.

The alligator does not often kill a deer; but the wounded deer that takes to the water is liable to attack. I have known at least one ten-point stag thus to be done to death.

On land the epitome of all that is awkward, in the water the alligator can be a perfect marvel of speed and grace. From an observation perch in a cypress tree on the edge of | a big pond, so shielded by a dense growth of forest trees that the wind rarely ruffles those silent black waters, I have watched alligators at their ease, off guard. They lie in the water with their legs extended. This posture not only gives them balance and perhaps a certain degree of support, but sets them ready for instant motion. They lie poised for action.

One of their most remarkable maneuvers is their sinking from sight without creating a ripple. In the dark waters, the fish and aquatic birds and ‘gators, in swimming about, create tiny white bubbles. These cling to the sides of an alligator lying still, so that I have seen, after one of these creatures had silently submerged himself, his entire form perfectly outlined in snowy bubbles on the placid surface of the lake.

The bull alligator, in the season of love, becomes lyric; and in his passion he gives vent to stentorian roarings. If you can imagine a bull bellowing in a cane, you have a fair idea of this awesome sound, surely one of the most primeval and impressive in all nature. The bull alligators roar to impress the females with the overpowering manliness and dignity of their character; and thus, too, the supremacy of rivals is challenged. The fighting of the bulls is always done in the water; but the act of mating is performed on land. Both of these I have often witnessed. But a far more interesting performance, and one never before recorded by an observer, was my seeing a bull in the act of bellowing. So gross and obscure are the haunts of these creatures, and so secretive are they, even while bellowing to the world their greatness, that few indeed are ever seen while singing their tremendous love song. Certainly I have observed several thousand alligators in their natural state; yet only once have I seen a bull roaring.

At the time he was in the river, close to a marshy bank. I was in the woods near him, and by some careful stalking came to a moss-draped cypress only fifty yards away. By climbing into the tree, the shrouding moss of which afforded me a perfect shield, I had a clear view of the love-tormented alligator.

What amazed me was his prodigious size; this, however, I soon saw was exaggerated by the great reptile’s having distended himself. He lay almost completely out of the water, his huge body inflated. In bellowing, he opened his great jaws but partly—in this respect resembling a modern crooner. But he did not sing softly. Such was the power of his roaring that I was almost deafened, and the earth seemed to shake. Not the howl of the gray wolf, nor the bugling of the bull elk, nor the roar of the lion has the same pagan and primordial appeal to the imagination as this stupendous love-song, uttered by one of earth’s monsters that is, ancestrally, among the most ancient dwellers on our planet.


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