It can be tempting for humans to believe that we are above the laws that govern nature. We hear stories about how alligators can camouflage themselves as logs to surprise their prey, and we think, “Well, no offense to the small animals that might fall for that trick, but surely such a simplistic plot wouldn’t work on me, a highly evolved creature with opposable thumbs, critical thinking skills, and the ability to operate standard kitchen appliances.” So it was especially humbling to realize, on a recent visit to Port Aransas, that the large log I had been staring at for several seconds was, in fact, a fully grown gator.
His name was Boots. I had come to the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, in the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, in mid-January specifically to see him, which made my initial oversight even more embarrassing. But it was an unusually gray day in Port Aransas, a small beach community on Mustang Island just east of Corpus Christi. A heavy fog hung incongruously over the town’s bright, taffy-colored stilt houses and its streets, which have cheery names like Dolphin Circle and Sea Breeze Lane. At the Birding Center, the cloud cover had reduced the colors of the salt marsh to various shades of grayish green, the same colors as Boots.
When I stepped onto the Birding Center’s elevated walkway in the late morning, about a dozen visitors were already there, bundled up against the wet cold. A couple of dedicated-looking birders were decked out in bucket hats and hiking shoes, DSLR cameras by their sides. An older man held a pair of binoculars, which he kept trained on a trio of endangered whooping cranes in the distance. About a hundred feet out from the walkway, on a small strip of land in the middle of the salt marsh, dozens of white pelicans huddled together, preening. Closer in, busy little brown sandpipers and elegant, leggy stilts picked their way through the mud. Occasionally, a bird would drift within gobbling distance of Boots’s massive jaws, prompting a collective intake of breath from the visitors on the platform. To the dismay of some of the younger members of his audience, Boots ignored the birds. “He’s so lazy,” one little boy whined.
For as long as almost anyone in town can remember, Boots has presided over the lush wetlands of the Birding Center as its proud, capricious potentate. Occasionally, other alligators float in from neighboring rivers, eager to take advantage of the preserve’s ample supply of food and fresh water. Boots tolerates these interlopers until he doesn’t; when they’ve overstayed their welcome, he chases them out of his realm. That, city officials believe, is what happened to one alligator who then took up residence in a creek by the Port Aransas Dollar General for more than a year, until he was finally removed by a professional trapper last November.
Stumpy—he was missing his right foot—was a ten-footer who first appeared in fall 2019 in the creek that runs from the Birding Center to the Dollar General. He quickly became a celebrity in town, with local news tracking his comings and goings. As with any celebrity, the more people heard about him, the more they wanted to see him. Soon, crowds were swarming the creek.
Unlike most celebrities, though, Stumpy sports jaws that can rip the bumper off a car like it’s crepe paper, and his brain measures only about half a tablespoon, which limits impulse control. That didn’t deter his oglers. When confronted with an animal that could tear their arms to ribbons, tourists’ fight-or-flight responses were often overwhelmed by a more powerful force: the desire to get a cool picture. Onlookers started throwing Stumpy chicken, hot dogs, half-eaten sandwiches. In some cases they threw rocks to get his attention—anything to grab a good shot.
When officials—police, game wardens, or animal control—were called to the scene, they tried to shoo the crowds away. But usually by the time they arrived, the gator feeders had already fled. For Stumpy’s safety, as well as that of his fans and haters, officials repeatedly tried to chase him up the creek to the Birding Center, only to have Boots chase him right back out again. They even tried installing posts at the center to prevent Stumpy from swimming back down to the drainage ditch, but he would either knock them over or haul himself out of the water and waddle around them. Then he would swim back to his peaceful abode at the Dollar General. Stumpy, it seemed, wasn’t going anywhere.
Texas doesn’t have the gator-rich reputation of, say, Louisiana or Florida, said Jonathan Warner, the alligator program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (a little defensively, to my ear). But our alligators are “native Texans,” and Warner estimated that the state is home to as many as half a million of the creatures. In the seventies and eighties, vigorous state and federal conservation efforts, helped along by landowners, brought the American alligator back from the brink of extinction—and then some.
A booming alligator population, coupled with Texas’s booming human population, also means more run-ins between alligators and humans. Every year, TPWD fields about a thousand calls regarding “nuisance alligators” lurking where people think they shouldn’t: pools, driveways, Dollar Generals. Warner noted that the nuisance calls are relatively few, given the size of the state’s gator population. That’s a testament, he said, to the animal’s natural docility. Most of the time, no intervention is necessary and intrusive gators just wander off. But sometimes, in about a third of reported gator sightings, specially trained nuisance alligator control agents must be deployed. About half of the nuisance alligators are sent to farms or reserves. The rest are euthanized.
“I know it’s not the city’s alligator, but it is in a city drainage ditch. Your drainage ditch, your gator, your problem.”
Stumpy was the second alligator to settle in the creek between the Dollar General and the Birding Center. (The first one, Big Padre, is living out his retirement years at a nature preserve on South Padre Island.) Budget shops are not typically ideal habitats for alligators, but this one has a couple of features—besides its great deals on chips and shampoo—that have made it particularly attractive to passing crocodilians. The drainage ditch that runs just south of the store is wide and placid and flanked on either side by lush banks of grass, perfect for sunning one’s bony scutes on warm days. Farther up the creek, away from the shoppers and traffic, the water offers up an all-you-can-eat buffet of turtles and birds and fish. All that, and there’s no Boots to run you off. The creek would be a pretty perfect spot for an alligator to call home if it weren’t for the humans.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, another alligator in that ditch,’ ’’ David Parsons, Port Aransas’s city manager, told me over the phone when I asked him about Stumpy. But then he started seeing pictures on Facebook of people feeding the alligator. The more passersby fed the alligator, the more Stumpy came to expect food from them. If an alligator comes to expect food from humans, it can lose its natural apprehension of them. And the less apprehensive an alligator is of humans, the more likely it is to approach them, and the greater the chance of an accident. Gators have what athletes call a quick first step, and despite their lethargic mien and stubby legs, they can outsprint many humans over a short distance. “I don’t know if they’d eat a full-grown man, but they’d definitely eat a dog or attack a small kid,” Parsons said. Soon, he was getting calls from the mayor asking him what he was going to do about the gator.
Under whose jurisdiction does an errant alligator fall, though? It’s a question that was somehow overlooked by the founding fathers as they wrestled over the country’s governing principles. Is it the city’s responsibility? The county’s? The state’s? “It turns into a hot potato,” Parsons said. Ultimately, he felt the responsibility to relocate Stumpy fell on Port Aransas. “I know it’s not the city’s alligator, but it is in a city drainage ditch. Your drainage ditch, your gator, your problem.”
More specifically, it became the problem of Richard Gleason, Port Aransas’s animal control officer. Gleason loves his job because, as he’ll tell you jokingly-but-not-really-jokingly, he likes animals better than people. Most of the calls he receives in the small, fluorescent-lit building that doubles as his office and Port Aransas’s animal shelter are about rogue coyotes, stray cats that have climbed up onto roofs, or rattlesnakes that have curled up behind refrigerators. But every once in a while, he gets a call about a gator. “You never know what’s going to come across the radio,” he said cheerfully, as a tortoiseshell cat yowled from the other room. In the three years since he became the city’s only full-time animal control officer, Gleason said, he’s relocated four alligators from Port Aransas and the surrounding area.
Gleason hates the idea of euthanizing animals. It’s why he got involved with animal control in the first place. So when he took over Port Aransas’s animal control operations, he stopped euthanizing the cats, dogs, rattlesnakes, and coyotes he found and focused on relocating them instead. And he definitely wanted no part in putting down an alligator. The first time he had to deal with a nuisance alligator, he said, TPWD told him it’d have to euthanize the animal because the alligator was too significant a threat to people to rerelease into the wild. “That really kind of freaked me out,” Gleason said. “That alligator was over eleven feet long, and I think they estimated he was over fifty years old. I thought, ‘You’re going to kill that?’ Things like that drive me insane.”
Gleason can’t capture alligators himself because he doesn’t have an alligator-trapping license. (Unless there is an immediate, life-or-death situation, capturing an alligator without the proper permit is a misdemeanor in Texas. This is to prevent what one Port Aransas police dispatcher described as “hold my beer” accidents.) So Gleason started researching licensed alligator trappers. That’s how he came across the website of Gary Saurage.
Saurage is a licensed trapper and former TV personality who briefly starred in the 2010 CMT reality series Gator 911. (“He’s this tall,” Gleason said of Saurage, holding his hand flat across his chest, “and he’s got arms as big as my legs.”) Saurage runs Gator Country, a wildlife park in Beaumont that is home to more than six hundred alligators, crocodiles, and other reptiles. He estimates that he and his wife, Shannon, rescue more than two hundred alligators a year from across Texas. Over the past three years, Saurage has helped Gleason with four nuisance alligator rescues from around Port Aransas, including, most recently, Stumpy.
Stumpy’s rescue was unusually difficult. Saurage and Shannon had to make the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Beaumont to Port Aransas four different times before they were able to catch him. On their first three visits, the couple couldn’t find him. “Finally, in November, when we went, he was right there,” Saurage told me over the phone. “And he was as bullyish as they said.” There was no doubt that people had been feeding the gator, he said. Not only was Stumpy unafraid of humans, but he had ballooned up to well over 450 pounds, a hefty size for an alligator in his late twenties.
To catch Stumpy, Saurage lowered a lasso into the water in front of the gator’s head, while Shannon tossed chicken into the water on the other side of the rope. When Stumpy lunged for the food, Saurage slipped the lasso over his head and cinched it. Then, he said, “the water just blew up.”
With the help of police and passersby, the Saurages were able to wrestle the alligator onto dry land. They both sat on him to subdue him, but it was a struggle. “We do this all the time, but this was not your average-sized alligator,” Saurage said.
Eventually, they were able to tape Stumpy’s jaws and legs. They boarded him overnight in a dog kennel at the animal shelter, and the next day they put him in a truck that whisked him away to his new life in Gator Country.
In Port Aransas, I visited Tammy Stewart, a police dispatcher, who showed me pictures she took the day Stumpy was caught. In one, Gleason, Saurage, and three other men can be seen lifting the alligator into the bed of Saurage’s truck.
“Who’s that?” I asked Stewart, pointing at a man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging. “People just showed up and wanted to touch an alligator.”
Coming face-to-face with an animal that could conceivably use your femur as a toothpick does weird things to people. Gator encounters are unsettling, but flirting with dismemberment is also thrilling. While humans as a species may be at the top of the planet’s food chain, as individuals, most of us—except for maybe Gary Saurage—are just soft, fleshy bags of bones who don’t stand much of a chance against nature.
Our interactions with the gators are almost certainly less exciting for them—and, in many ways, far more dangerous. On the viewing platform at the Birding Center, visitors around me wrestled with complicated feelings about their proximity to Boots. One mother, seized by a sudden Kierkegaardian anxiety, wondered aloud what might happen if she accidentally dropped her baby over the platform. She laughed, but the thought clearly troubled her, and she hugged the infant more tightly to her chest. Her husband assured her that should the baby fall, he would jump in after her. “She wouldn’t even hit the ground before I was down there, fighting that thing off.” The mother nodded, apparently reassured.
Still, the father seemed bothered by the fact that Boots was just . . . there. “Can’t he just go anywhere? Do people watch him?” he asked the birder with the binoculars, who had established himself as the platform’s de facto gator expert. The birder shrugged. “They get out sometimes,” he answered, before telling the man about Stumpy’s saga at the Dollar General.
More groups of people came and went from the platform, each of them dutifully taking out their phones to snap pictures of the alligator below. Boots, meanwhile, continued to bask in the glow of our attention, indifferent to the chaos he had wrought upon the town, serene and secure in his marshy kingdom.
Madeleine Aggeler is a writer who lives in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Gator About Town.” Subscribe today.