The alligator twisted and turned, churning water into a boil, attached to a rope it could not escape. It was clear: if it wasn’t freed, it would die.
Time for an alligator rescue.
It was an improbable end to an already memorable day.
The previous evening I had met Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of a nature reserve called the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. She invited me and several other conservation communicators attending the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in McAllen, Texas, to visit her reserve the next day.
And what a reserve it is: more than 200 butterfly species can be seen there, plus an impressive assortment of colorful birds, mammals, reptiles and other wildlife. In our morning visit, we saw green jays and curve-billed thrashers, Altamira orioles and black-crested titmice, hispid cotton rats and an indigo snake, plus around 25 species of butterflies.
Add to that the fact that Trevino-Wright is one of those conservationists who explodes with enthusiasm for her subject, shouting out species names as we walked, pointing excitedly to beetles and walking sticks, diving into the bushes after snakes.
We had seen far more than we had a right to expect. But Trevino-Wright wasn’t finished. We still had to see some alligators.
We drove to a wetland attached to the Rio Grande River, just across the river from Mexico — literally a stone’s throw away.
The alligators weren’t on the bank of the wetland where we expected to see them, but we could hear a splashing. And then that reptilian head appeared. But this one was attached to a thick rope. Very unhappily attached.
The rope appeared to be a large fish stringer, the device anglers use to keep fish they’ve caught. Somehow one of the metal latches had become hooked in the alligator’s mouth.
This was certainly a new one for our group of conservation communicators: Deborah Richie of the Sage Grouse Initiative, Paul Queneau of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Scott Hed of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska and Ken Keffer, prolific author of natural history and outdoor adventure books.
But the staff of the National Butterfly Center seemed nonplussed. Just another day on the preserve. Grounds manager Max Munoz assessed the hooked gator and devised a plan.
First, we had to get the gator to land. It was surprisingly heavy, but pulling the gator onto the dock proved to be the easy part. The gator didn’t like being hooked. It liked being out of the water less.
Munoz slipped a noose over its mouth so it wouldn’t be able to bite. The alligator wasn’t a big fan of this approach either.
Then it was time to calm the creature, by placing a towel over its eyes. It quit thrashing, but caution was still in order. There were a lot of hands very close to the gator’s mouth, as staff tried to extract the barbed metal.
A pair of wire cutters extracted the metal stringer. Fortunately, the gator was still fat and healthy; it hadn’t been trapped long.
The staff gave it gentle shove off the dock, and it splashed into the water. It gave a kick and disappeared into the depths.
I can’t guarantee you’ll have a gator encounter if you visit the National Butterfly Center. But you’ll surely see more birds and butterflies and other colorful critters than you can imagine.
The staff there are doing a fantastic job with restoration, research, native plant gardening and extensive education and outreach programs. And they’re excited to discuss it with you. In fact, Trevino-Wright missed a family barbeque – on the Sunday of Memorial Day, no less – to lead our impromptu tour.
I can’t think of a place in the United States where I’ve seen more charismatic biodiversity in such a short period of time. It’s the perfect place to share with new and old friends who share a passion for wildlife and conserving it.