Gators, steer clear of Temple Terrace

The City Council gives trappers wide authority.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 10, 2007

TEMPLE TERRACE - This city is declaring war on alligators, aiming to prevent more attacks like the one that killed a beloved Labrador retriever named Dude several weeks ago.

The City Council this week passed a resolution giving trappers 90 days to kill all alligators longer than 9 feet found in the 6 1/2 mile stretch of the Hillsborough River that runs through town.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says Temple Terrace is the first local government in Florida to ask to be designated a targeted trapping area.

"It's an option that we offer municipalities that want to take a little more proactive approach to managing alligators in their area," said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse.

Although the vote passed 5-0, residents here are split on the decision. Some are relieved; others are outraged.

"I'm very upset," said Bill Carey, an ecologist who has lived on the Hillsborough River since 1985 and often gives house guests boat tours of the river.

The first question his guests usually ask, he said, is, "Can you see alligators?"

"That's just a connect to nature that people like," he said. "For the most part, alligators, unless they are nesting or defending a territory, they don't want any part of you."


Some worry for gators

Temple Terrace's systematic hunt goes beyond the prevailing practice of having residents who encounter threatening alligators that are over 4 feet long call the state hotline to have them removed by a trapper.

In Hillsborough County, the wildlife commission uses the services of trapper Julie Harter for such nuisance alligators.

She said the reptiles are hard to find this time of year because it is so hot, but trappers are still in demand. The wildlife commission says trappers killed 464 alligators in Hillsborough County last year, and 9,750 statewide.

Lindsey Hord, coordinator of the statewide nuisance alligator program, said harvested alligators sell for $35 to $40 a foot.

That worries Carey, who fears aggressive hunters.

"It's Christmas in August for the alligator trapper," he said. "They chop them up into hat bands, belts and gator nuggets."

Morse, of the wildlife commission, said the blanket permit does not mean an army of trappers will descend upon the river.

Harter's agency is the only one that will be allowed to hunt alligators for Temple Terrace's program, he said.

Also, as the number of big alligators declines, hunting them will become more difficult so it will be less profitable, he said.

Morse said the reproductive potential of alligators will not be affected by the permit because female alligators rarely grow to 9 feet, and the males sexually mature at 6 feet.

Alligators longer than 9 feet "pose the greatest threat to human safety," Morse said.


What started it all

The alligator that killed Dude was a whopping 12 feet 4 inches long, said Harter, whose employees trapped it July 29. Locals called it "The Big One."

Martha Collins has lived on the river for four years. She was in her home office May 17 looking out her window when The Big One swam by.

"You'd see him every day," she said. "He'd swim out in front of our house and make a counterclockwise loop."

That day, though, he made a sharp turn.

"He was swimming so fast, he was leaving a wake," heading straight at a black object with a speck of red, Collins said. She thought his quarry was a black-feathered coot bird.

"He takes one chomp, does a roll and that's all you see," she said. "You see a lot of bubbles coming up. That's it."

People on the bank screamed, and said the alligator ate a dog.

"If that would've been a person, there was absolutely no way they could have escaped that gator," she said.

Collins immediately called the wildlife commission and filed a police report. "I told them if someone was missing a black lab with a red collar, it has met an unhappy end."

It turned out that a neighbor had been watching a dog named Dude while his owners were on vacation. The dog was a prize-winner that has retrieved more than 1,000 birds and had been featured at hunting shows and on the cover of magazine.

"This was not just a family pet, this was a well-trained animal," Collins said.

She learned that a thunderstorm spooked Dude and he darted away. "I still get a sick feeling in my stomach thinking about it," she said.

Temple Terrace spokesman Michael Dunn said Dude's owner, Ken Cochran, asked the city to look into the situation.


City defends its plan

The city manager offered a plan at Tuesday's City Council meeting to streamline the reporting time for nuisance alligators to have them removed.

But council member Mark Knapp proposed having the city's portion of the river designated a targeted harvesting area.

Knapp and the council were on the defensive at a town hall meeting Thursday over the plan. They stood by their vote, but agreed to consider having an environmental study. They also promised to end the program if too many alligators are being killed.

Dunn said that there will be a 90 day trial period and that the city will assess the program after that.

"People can say no one has been killed by an alligator in Temple Terrace, but why wait until someone dies to fix it?" Knapp said Thursday. "It's like not putting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection until somebody dies."


Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or 813 269-5312.