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Gator hunter rescues good ol' boys

THE 2.4-meter alligator opens its jaws wide and hisses in the dark at Julie Harter, who takes a few steps closer and dangles a lasso just like the kind rodeo cowboys use.

Cornered against a chain-link fence in a suburban garbage truck parking lot, in Tampa, Florida, the beast issues a guttural growl, warning the lady with the rope -- the only woman out of 40 or so trappers licensed by the state -- to keep her distance.

With her auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail and a gold alligator pendant dangling from a chain around her neck, Harter comes off as Southern-sweet but sturdy and as tough as gator hide.

The 47-year-old grandmother is used to snide, under-the-breath comments from good ol' boys and doubters when she gets out of the truck. They shut up when she hops on a big gator's back, grabs the snout and wraps it tight with electrician's black tape.

The gator in front of her at this moment is going to be a little tricky. The corner is dark and littered with junk and she can't get close enough to use her usual tool: a catch pole with a retractable wire loop on the end. So out comes the lasso.

On the third toss, Harter rings the gator's head, yanks the rope tight around its neck and drags the thrashing creature to the middle of the paved lot. The garbage-truck guys who've been watching scatter like little kids on the playground.

It's 9pm, the tail end of a day that Harter started 14 hours earlier at her other job, working with special education students at a central Florida high school.

"A girl's work is never done," she said, climbing into her big black Ford truck with the "Lady Gator Trapper" license plate.

About 1.3 million wild alligators live among 18 million people in Florida. With drought and development shrinking their habitat, the large reptiles inevitably wander into back yards, highways, swimming pools and parking lots.

Nuisance trappers working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission captured nearly 10,000 alligators last year, slaughtering most of them. Harter and a helper took 346 of them from her territory around Tampa.

The state doesn't pay trappers, but they get to keep the alligators which are a protected species. There is a market for the meat, but the real money is in the hides which can bring US$40 a foot (30 centimeters). Some years, catching gators is more profitable for Harter than her teaching job.

Trapping contract

A native Floridian, she learned how to catch alligators from her trapper husband, Billy. They were together nine years, until he was killed in a 2003 helicopter accident.

She spent weeks in bed crying after he died. Then somebody from the state called and asked her to apply for his trapping contract. She says she did it because she liked the work and was good at it, not because Billy did it.

She'll acknowledge, though, that doing the work he loved has helped her manage pain that is still so raw it brings tears without warning.

"This has kind of kept me attached," she said in a quiet moment. "It's helped with the grief." She said she still hears Billy's voice in her head: "Be careful. Treat every alligator like it was the first you ever caught."

She's never been bitten nor even had a close call, she said. The same day Harter was called to rescue the garbage-truck guys, she didn't change out of her flip-flops to snag a 1.2-meter alligator from a woman's front door step. This one apparently wandered away from a neighborhood pond in one of the many newer subdivisions that sprawl north of Tampa.

At the next stop, Melissa Ainsworth nearly hugs Harter just for showing up. An alligator has been crawling out of the pond behind her house and sunning in the yard.

The other day, Ainsworth's five-year-old daughter wandered outside and there it was, just a meter away. "I've been living it, sleeping it, dreaming about it," Ainsworth said. "You could say I'm paranoid."

After catching the gator on a hook baited with beef lung, Harter drags it ashore, tapes the mouth shut, binds the legs and drags the thing by the tail out to the truck.

This one is 1.9 meters -- "a nasty teenager," Harter said. Before she puts it in the cage with the others, she chats with folks who have gathered with their cell phone cameras. She lets some of the kids touch the alligator's rough black hide.

Ainsworth hugs her and calls her a hero. "Girl power!" Ainsworth shouts as Harter gets in her truck.

The alligator lady, inspecting her freshly pedicured toenails for damage as she exchanges work shoes for the preferred flip-flops, just smiles.


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