Officials at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Florida reported an unusual obstruction on the airstrip this past Tuesday preventing military aircraft from taking off: a laid back alligator seemingly perfectly content to catch some sun on the warm blacktop of the runway.
While alligators are no stranger to Florida, they are an uncommon sight in places like a military flight line, where perimeter fences and frequent traffic tend to make for an unwelcoming area for wildlife--especially the sort that tends to move at a leisurely pace outside of the water. Alligators are, of course, capable of achieving downright terrifying speeds in short bursts on land, but this gator didn't seem to have speed on its mind as it was approached by MacDill officials.
MacDill Air Force Base
As luck would have it, wrangling wayward alligators happens to be one of the unusual skill sets I've gathered over the years, cutting my gator wrestling teeth in a large animal preserve in Colorado some time ago.
The preserve maintained a sizeable population of wild and rescued alligators, many of which sometimes require medical care for the small wounds they tend to give one another in their sporadic alligator squabbles. Some of the worst gator-on-gator injuries, I came to find, often involved long-term mating pairs going through bad breakups. Despite having the size advantage, it's often the males that require medical attention after a breakup--and I'll leave any jokes about the fury of a woman scorned for you to make for yourself.
At MacDill, they were able to get their alligator intruder off the flight line by coaxing it into the bucket of a front loader using a bucket of food, which was probably the safest and most expedient method of dinosaur removal you could come up with on short notice. My experience wrangling alligators was slightly different… as the gators I was after were submerged under waist-deep opaque water and often injured.
Although you can't see it, there's an alligator right beneath me here.
Despite the terror associated with wading around in water you know is chock-full of apex predators, alligators can be a surprisingly docile species when approached by humans. Don't let that fool you. It isn't a friendly demeanor that keeps them still, but rather a supreme confidence in their ability to manage the threat posed by your squishy, meat-filled body.
Getting a submerged alligator out of the water for treatment is a nerve-racking but surprisingly simple endeavor: you walk barefoot through the water very slowly, being careful not to lift your feet, as a submerged alligator might mistake a raised foot for a swimming fish. As you slowly push your feet forward, you feel for the leathery hide of an alligator resting on the river bed. Maybe it's their thick skin, maybe it's their confidence, but alligators rarely react when you nudge them with a toe.
From there, the stress begins: you need to determine which way the head is pointing and step over the alligator's back, so you're standing with the submerged gator between your legs, with its head pointing in the same direction as yours. Then it's as simple as reaching down under the water and carefully looping your rope around the alligator's neck. Once the rope is secured, you once more very gingerly, step away from the gator with the other end of the rope in hand. Once you're a few feet away, you've got a gator on a leash, and you need to get it to shore: there's only one way to do that. With one tug of the rope, hell breaks loose. An explosion of water fills the area as the alligator tries to attack with both teeth and tail. There's nothing left to do now but play tug of war with a dinosaur.
Just like taking your giant, tooth-filled dog for a walk that he really doesn't want to go on.
Once on shore, the fight has just begun. You pass the rope to your partner to put some tension on it to redirect the alligator's focus while you circle around. Once you're sure the alligator has lost sight of you, you move as quickly as you can to get onto the alligator's back with your feet beneath you, sticking your fingers into its mouth at the rear near the jaw joint and heaving your weight backward as you pull to subdue the monster.
With small alligators, this is a challenge. With big alligators, it's exactly as scary as you imagine. If the gator bucks you off (as they sometimes do) your partner will need to move quickly to save your life. Alligators attack at angles and with lightning quickness, making their aggressive movements difficult to predict and even more difficult to evade.
Believe it or not, this was still a "small" alligator during training classes.
Once subdued, we used good old fashioned triple antibiotic ointment on small wounds and antibiotic injections for larger injuries before releasing the alligators back into the water.
Fortunately for MacDill, a bucket of food and a bit of heavy equipment did the trick just fine this time… but if these sightings keep up, alligator wrestling could become one heck of a B-billet.