The "'Gator" by Clarence B. Moore

The alligator, or "'gator," as it is usually called throughout its home, the Southern States, is an object of great curiosity at the North. Every winter many tourists visit Florida and carry back baby alligators, together with more or less magnified accounts of the creature's doings and habits, and their stories are probably the cause of this very widespread interest.

Though the alligator is rapidly disappearing from the banks of the lower St. John's River, in Lake Washington and in the Saw Grass Lake (where that river has its source), and in waters still farther south, they are still to be found in almost undiminished numbers, and are hunted for a living by native hunters. They are commonly sought at night, by torch-light, for in this way they can be approached with the utmost ease.


A rifle-ball will readily penetrate an alligator's hide, although there exists an unfounded belief to the contrary. The creatures will "stand a deal of killing," however, and frequently roll off a bank and are lost even after being shot through and through.

The alligator builds a nest of mud and grass, and lays a large number of oblong white eggs, but the little ones when hatched often serve as lunch for their unnatural papa, and this cannibalism, more than the rifle, prevents their numbers from increasing. The alligator is not particular as to diet. I once found the stomach of a ten-footer to be literally filled with pine chips from some tree which had been felled near the river's bank! They are fond of wallowing in marshes, and many a man out snipe shooting has taken an involuntary bath by stumbling into their wallows. In dry seasons alligators will traverse long distances overland to reach water, and travelers have come suddenly upon alligators crawling amid prairies or woods, in the most unexpected manner. The alligator as a rule is very wary, but at times sleeps quite soundly. I saw one struck twice with an oar before it woke.

The Haunt of the "Gator" The Haunt of the "Gator".

There is a very prevalent impression that the alligator differs from the crocodile in that one moves the upper jaw and the other the lower. Such, however, is not the case. Both animals move the lower jaw, though the raising of the head as the mouth opens sometimes gives the appearance of moving the upper jaw only. But alligators and crocodiles differ in the arrangement of the teeth, and the snout of the crocodile is more sharply pointed.

The hides are salted to preserve them and are shipped to dealers in Jacksonville, where those less than six feet long are worth a dollar, while for those which exceed this length twenty-five cents extra is allowed. A fair estimate of the number of alligators killed for sale in Florida alone, and not counting those shot by tourists, would be ten thousand annually. One hears very conflicting reports as to the length of large alligators. A prominent dealer in Jacksonville said that out of ten thousand hides handled by him none were over twelve feet long. I am told that at the Centennial, side by side with a crocodile from the Nile, there was shown an alligator from Florida sixteen feet in length.

Years ago near a place called Enterprise, on a point jumping into Lake Monroe, during all bright days a certain big alligator used to lie basking in the sun. He was well known to the whole neighborhood. The entire coterie of sportsmen at the only hotel used to call him "Big Ben," and proud hunters would talk, and even dream, of the time when a well-aimed rifle-shot would end his long career. But Big Ben was as cunning as a serpent, and whenever any one, afoot or afloat, came unpleasantly near, he would slide off into the water,—which meant "good-by" for the rest of the day.

One fine morning one of these sportsmen, paddling up the lake, luckily with his rifle in his canoe, came upon Big Ben so sound asleep that he stole up within range and put a bullet through the alligator's brain. What to do next was a problem. He could not tow the monster all the way to Enterprise with his small canoe. A bright idea struck him. He put his visiting-card in the beast's mouth and paddled swiftly back. A number of hunters were at the wharf, and the slayer of Big Ben hastened to inform them with apparent sincerity that while out paddling he had come within easy range of the "'gator," who was, no doubt, still lying motionless on the point. A flotilla of boats and canoes, manned by an army with rifles, instantly started for the point. To avoid confusion it was unanimously agreed that all should go down together, and that the entire party, if they were lucky enough to find Big Ben still there, should fire a volley at the word of command. As they approached the point, the hearts of all beat quickly; and when, with straining eyes, they saw Big Ben apparently asleep and motionless upon the bank, even the coolest could scarcely control his feelings. The boats were silently drawn up within easy shot, and the word was given. Bang, bang! went a score of rifles and Big Ben, riddled with bullets, lay motionless upon the point! With a cheer of triumph the excited sportsmen leaped ashore, and fastening a rope around the dead alligator, speedily towed him to Enterprise. There the original slayer awaited them upon the wharf. When Big Ben was laid upon the shore, opening the animal's mighty jaws he disclosed his visiting-card, and thanked them most politely for their kindness in bringing his 'gator home for him.


I once met with a curious adventure. Man is rarely attacked by alligators in Florida, except by the female alligator called upon to defend her young. Some years ago, in a small steamer chartered for the purpose, I had gone up a branch of the St. John's beyond Salt Lake until we could proceed no farther, because the top of the river had become solid with floating vegetation under which the water flowed. We tied up for the night, and shortly after were boarded by two men who said that their camp was near by and that they shot alligators and plume-birds for a living. One of the men carried his rifle, a muzzle-loader, and from its barrel projected the ramrod, which had become fast immediately above the ball while loading. He intended to draw it out after they should return to camp.


We went ashore with these men to look at an alligator's nest near by, and were filling our pockets with baby-alligators, when we heard a grunting sound and saw an alligator eight or nine feet long coming directly at us. With the exception of the man already referred to, we were all unarmed and affairs began to look a little unpleasant, for the creature evidently meant mischief. When it was within a few feet, the man with the rifle, knowing that he alone had a weapon, took deliberate aim and fired bullet, ramrod, and all down the 'gator's throat. The animal turned over twice, and rolling off the bank, sank out of sight.

The alligators of the Amazon River in South America are very numerous, and owing to scarcity of hunters attain a very great size. In the upper waters apparently they are entirely unaccustomed to the report of firearms, and if not actually hit will lie still while shot after shot is fired. The largest I ever killed and measured was thirteen feet and four inches in length; but this was much smaller than many which I shot from dugouts and canoes too far away from shore to tow them in.

Buried an inch deep in one of these dead alligators I once found a piraña, that troublesome fish which makes swimming in some parts of the Amazon a risky matter. It bores into flesh very much after the manner of a circular punch, and when it starts, its habit is to go to the bone. The piraña of course could not penetrate the hide of the alligator, but entering by the bullet-hole it had turned to one side and partially buried itself in the flesh. I have seen men bearing very ugly scars, the results of wounds inflicted by the piraña while they were bathing. If this fish is cut open after having bored its way into an animal a solid round mass of flesh will be found inside corresponding to the hole it has made, showing that the fish really bores its way in.


It is said that the alligator of the Amazon is more likely to attack man than its brother of our Southern States. The captain of a small steamer running between Iquitos and Para, told me that on the preceding trip he had carried to a doctor a boy who had lost his arm from the bite of an alligator, while allowing his arm to hang in the water from a raft. The same captain, however, also informed me that he had been treed by one of these animals and compelled to remain "up a tree" for some time; so that I have some hesitation in quoting him as an authority upon the nature and habits of these alligators. The flesh of young alligators is considered a delicacy in Brazil and is regularly sold in the markets.