Mickey Fagan is the Old Florida answer to one of New Florida’s trickiest problems: nuisance alligators. The recent string of fatal attacks makes his grim work more in demand than ever.
By THOMAS LAKE
Published May 26, 2006
The seduction begins on the shoreline, in the decaying blue of late afternoon, when a man in a cream-colored cowboy hat readies his weapons and calls to his prey.
He says the call can mean one of two things to an alligator: Defend Your Territory, for I Am Invading It; or The Time has Come for Breeding, and I Need Your Crocodilian Love.
Either way, it works. A green-black shape slides toward him through the rippling murk of a water hazard on this New Port Richey golf course, and Mickey Fagan casts a juicy beef lung into the water. It is a Trojan horse.
The flesh hides a barbed steel hook, and the alligator that swallows it has already lost. A line runs from the hook to a pole in Fagan’s hands, and he can reel it in with relative ease. Armor and sharp teeth notwithstanding, it is hard for an alligator to fight back when steel shreds its insides with every move it makes.
Fagan is not on safari. Like the alligators he hunts, he comes when called. He works for the state-sponsored Nuisance Alligator Program, which claims responsibility for the deaths of more than 117,000 alligators since 1977. Laid end-to-end, their hides would stretch from Naples to Clearwater. The harvest reached an all-time high in 2005, and suburban sprawl mixed with public furor over reports of three women killed by alligators in a five-day span could help push this year’s total even higher.
The program’s 38 trappers are not allowed to take an alligator unless a citizen files a complaint. Many who call believe the captured alligators go to a safe country home. And the truth makes others angry.
Here at the water hazard, before the hook sinks in, a burly man erupts from a nearby house.
“The g-- d--- alligator hasn’t bothered anybody in five years,” says Paul Rizzo, 68. “You f------ people are ridiculous!”
Across the pond, several others applaud for Fagan. Rizzo goes to his house and returns with a long knife. He threatens to cut Fagan’s line. To his dissenting neighbors, he yells, “I’ve killed better people than you!”
Others join in Rizzo’s crusade.
“Where’s some bricks?” says Ian Godfrey, 60. “Throw some bricks and scare it off!”
But bricks are not needed. The alligator has lost its appetite. Fagan gathers his weapons and prepares to leave.
“Y’all have a good afternoon,” he says. He looks at Rizzo’s knife. “If I wanted to be an a------, you’d be going to jail right now.”
Today has nonetheless been good for Fagan. Six other alligators thrash and hiss in the cage behind his truck. They will bring him nearly $700 in profits. They will go to his slaughterhouse in Lacoochee, where scented candles mask the smell of death.
Their skins will be stripped off, cured with salt, shipped to Italy and Mexico and made into belts and briefcases and upholstered chairs.
Their flesh will be cut to pieces, rolled twice through a tenderizing machine and sold at $5 or $6 per pound for consumption in restaurants from New York to Hong Kong.
The scraps will be rendered into everything from fertilizer to lipstick.
Fagan is 40, married with two children. He works days as a lieutenant at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell. From a distance, he could pass for the Marlboro Man. He traps alligators with techniques passed down from his father and his father’s father. He embodies Old Florida.
But it is New Florida that keeps him out until 2 a.m., that has put 145,000 miles on his Ford F250 in just three years. The complaints tend to come from new subdivisions built next to water where alligators have lived for centuries. Many of those labeled nuisances have lost their natural fear because humans have illegally fed them.
To those people, Fagan has one thing to say:
“You’re the one that killed this alligator. Not me.”
On Thursday, May 18, in what may prove to be the worst month for deadly alligator attacks in the state’s recorded history, Fagan’s fax machine hums with fresh complaints.
In Land O’Lakes: “Gator was watching her dog.”
In Lutz: “Gator sunning is feet from playground.”
In Wesley Chapel: “Pond owner is missing a cat.”
In New Port Richey: “Gator has eaten dog.”
His first stop is the Groves in Land O’Lakes, where he baited a hook the day before and attached it to a metal rod sunk into the shoreline. Now the rod is gone.
“I wish I’d catch somebody doing that,” he says. “I’d beat the s--- out of 'em.”
Would-be alligator saviors do this sort of thing now and again, but Fagan says they only make things worse. If the alligator was hooked before the line was cut, it could die a slow death.
Just after noon in northern Hillsborough County, Fagan meets Sameer Asmar, who says an eight-foot alligator is stalking his children.
“I’m from Brooklyn,” Asmar says. “This isn’t something that we deal with, ever.”
Fagan cannot find the big alligator, but he sees a small one. As Fagan tries to reel it in, it kicks up mud and turns the water milky brown.
“All right, Junior,” Fagan says. “Just be still, please.”
He pulls Junior to shore, puts a boot on its back and fastens its jaws with black electrical tape. Junior gags as Fagan carries it by the tail and plops it into the red cage. Fagan guesses Junior is less than four feet, the minimum size for a kill under state regulations, so Fagan says he will free it in the woods near his ranch.
Fagan leaves bait for the big one. He will return tomorrow.
“I don’t know,” says next-door neighbor Pam Morris. “I think this one’s a little too smart for you.”
“Nope,” says Fagan. “Dealing with an alligator’s a little like dealing with a woman. You got to have patience.”
“And money,” she says.
Experts agree that relocating alligators generally doesn’t solve the problem -- it simply moves it. Hand-fed alligators can disrupt an ecosystem full of highly territorial reptiles, and their homing instincts are so strong they sometimes find their way back to the pond from whence they were reeled.
So the state has them killed. Fagan gets his first big one of the day from a quadrilateral pond rimmed by nondescript houses. Eow-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo. The alligator is nearly seven feet long, and it fights like a demon. But it has already been hooked, already undone by its credulous hunger.
Fagan shortens the line and twists to the right. Shorten, twist. Shorten, twist. He holds the rod in his left hand, a pole that looks like a giant fire poker in his right. A noose hooks to the end of the pole. He reaches out, angling the noose toward the alligator’s neck, but it darts away. Its eyes gleam through the cloudy water as it struggles for its life.
Fagan is unconcerned. He shortens the line again, finds the range and yanks the noose tight. He drags it from the water and seals its mouth. A silver-haired woman named Jean Packard watches from her porch.
“Taking our visitor away, huh?” she says.
At the River Ridge Golf Club, Fagan gets four more alligators in two hours. The first clings to an underwater ridge, not succumbing until Fagan’s fourth thrust with the noose. The second writhes in the back of a golf cart. The third measures nearly 10 feet and requires two men, two hooks and a full roll of electrical tape. The fourth catch seems almost routine.
The captured alligators hiss in a red cage by the clubhouse. They are bleeding internally, probably in shock. People point and smile. One man whips out a camera.
“I think this is a great system,” says club member Linda Goodworth. “It’s incredible that he has the skill to be able to catch them. Because they are man-eaters.”
Rachel Marsh walks by with her 8-year-old daughter, Jade.
“You relocate them somewhere?” Marsh asks, and Fagan just nods, because it is easier that way.
Behind the slaughterhouse, on a concrete slab in the Lacoochee darkness, Fagan sharpens his jackknife and opens the cage. He pulls out an alligator. He jams the knife behind its skull, severing the spinal cord, and he twists the knife forward to puncture the brain.
The last step is crucial to a humane kill. Without it, alligators have been known to track people with their eyes long after they are mortally wounded.
Fagan flips the dead alligator onto its back. He repeats the process with the second, the third. Next comes the 10-footer. “All right, big boy, Come on.”
He cracks it over the head with a small sledgehammer, but the blow glances off and the hissing intensifies. Fagan drags the alligator from the cage by its right front claw. He drops the sledgehammer again, a horrible thud this time, and the knife does its work.
Junior comes out last. Fagan had said it was too small to kill, but he miscalculated. Junior is more than four feet after all. Fagan drives down the knife, twisting it to widen the hole and drain the arteries.
Crickets trill in the distance. The alligators twitch beneath the floodlights, driven by postmortem reflex. Fagan has no time for sentiment. He barely has time for his family. A few minutes later, his phone rings.