More than 8,000 alligators statewide were declared nuisances last year, allowing trappers to remove and likely kill them. An alligator hissing on a Boynton Beach porch this month could have been added to this year’s count, but a city police officer came to its rescue.
“I saw no reason to put it down,” Boynton Beach police Officer Alfredo Vargas said last week while recalling how he threw a rope around the neck of the aggravated 6-foot reptile and then sat on it to tape its mouth shut.
Before Vargas started his law enforcement career with Boynton, he learned more than a decade ago how to handle and capture alligators at Native Village in Hollywood just for fun.
“I just thought it was pretty cool and it looked exciting,” he said.
Vargas had never used the trapping skills as a police officer until now. And an alligator had never taken a ride in the back seat of his patrol car until now.
The call came over the scanner before the sun rose July 10: An alligator was lying on the porch of a home in the Hunter’s Run residential community. Vargas asked his boss for permission to respond since he knew what to do. Go, he was told. After capturing the gator, Vargas drove it to the police station and then called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Officials told him it’d be about 30 minutes before a trapper would get there, and if the trapper did come, the gator would likely be killed. If he wanted to, the FWC told him, he could relocate it.
Vargas drove the reptile to a canal about 4 miles from the station and about 6 miles from Hunter’s Run, and let it go.
The FWC dispatches trappers when residents call to report a suspicious gator. The FWC decides if the alligator is a nuisance, which usually happens if it’s at least 4 feet long and the caller believes it’s a threat to residents, pets or property. The trapper needs a special permit to take it alive.
The FWC doesn’t recommend relocating the reptiles because they often try to return to the scene of the capture. And it says the gator population is not in danger.
“Florida has a healthy and stable alligator population. We have about 1.3 million alligators in Florida,” according to the FWC website. “The removal of nuisance alligators does not have a significant impact on our state’s alligator population.”
Last year, the FWC received 12,772 nuisance alligator complaints across the state and trappers removed 8,118 of the reptiles.
Jim Chesney, a Palm Beach County trapper, catches about 75 on average per year. But alligators aren’t as dangerous as people think, he said.
“Just be aware of your environment. Ninty-nine percent of the time the alligators don’t want anything to do with people. They get lost or whatever and you have that rare encounter,” he said.
For Vargas, not every capture went as well as the Boynton one. The officer has been bitten twice, and one time someone had to use a crowbar to pry open the gator’s mouth so Vargas could pull his hand out.
But he was prepared for the worst on that porch. He thinks the gator came from a canal behind the home.
Vargas approached the gator while making a clicking sound, trying to imitate the noise a baby gator makes. He thought the gator would move toward him and away from the front door. But that didn’t work.
While the gator stretched open its mouth exposing its teeth, the officer tried several times until he successfully slipped a rope around its neck and swung the gator around so its tail was closest to him. Then he threw his raincoat over the reptile’s eyes to calm it down. Vargas sat on top of it and tied tape around the gator’s mouth to keep it closed. He removed it before he released the reptile.
The officer said he wouldn’t have done anything differently, and came out of the experience without injury. After all, Vargas learned from the best. His mentors at Native Village in Hollywood were the great gator-wrestling legends, Jimmy Riffle and the late Michael “Skeet” Johns.
Vargas is now the department’s “official alligator wrestler,” a spokeswoman said.