Moving someplace totally new is a funny thing. At first you notice everything that is different, from strange-looking birds to unfamiliar store brands. Then, gradually, you build your routines and before long you think you got it all covered. But every now and then, something pops up to bite you in the ass and remind you that you really are a long, long way from home.
In this particular wee town of South Florida, fishing is a big thing. Or as the tourist shirts boast, it’s “A small drinking town with a fishing problem”. Seven minutes walk from home takes us to the city park and the popular fishing dock. Men with leathered, tanned faces and white long-sleeves come down there every day to cast a line for bluefish, bass, halibut and mahi-mahi. The concrete seawalls are perfect to sit on for truly laid-back Floridian fishing, and there’s even a workbench with running water for gutting and cleaning your catch.
Two boat ramps allow for entering the water with your boat, kayak or jet ski. And that’s where we spot it. Barely clearing the water line where cut-off fish heads are bobbing in the shallow. A four feet long alligator tail. With no gator attached. Complete, un-cut alligators reach up to fifteen feet (4,5 m) in length. Hence, the tail was once attached to an animal close to nine feet.
After blinking away the first surprise, we come to terms with the fact that it is indeed the better half of an American alligator that is lying there. Now, considering how the mafia works down here, the finding is probably not the most gruesome or even shocking discovery you can make down at the docks. Also, there are more than one million alligators in Florida. That simple fact keeps them well OFF the list of endangered species and very much IN the daily ongoings. The reptiles are crowding the swamps and marshes, lakes and canals, not to mention swimming pools and yards. They eat all kinds of small animals they can get to in or out of water, and scare the sh- – out of golfers and poodles alike. You can have the so-called “nuisance alligators” removed from your immediate private space or property, but only when and if they exceed four feet in length. The smaller ones are not considered dangerous – “unless handled”.
It’s a love ’n’ hate relationship. As waterfront properties are hugely preferred among both our species, the conflict of interest is there. But the alligator is nonetheless the official state reptile of Florida and “The Gators” has been the affectionate pet name of the University of Florida sports teams since 1911. Last but not least, they taste good. In South Florida, gators are on the menu everywhere. Like most exotic meats, such as snake or frog legs, alligator taste a lot like chicken. Gator bites are Florida’s chicken nuggets. The tail and jaw are the choice cuts, but also ribs and tenderloins are used for cooking. And then of course, there is the alligator skin sorting under the luggage department. Florida’s first alligator ranch was established in 1891, and today’s production is an integrated part of Florida agricultural industry. Gators bite a lot harder than cows, eat enormous amounts of meat and are most likely a bitch and a half to herd, but the business is here to stay.
Fascinated by the morning’s discovery, we go home and rummage for the story details of another alligator that lost its tail. Mr. Stubbs is an eleven years old alligator who has lived most of his life bereaved of this particular body part. Experts are guessing that the tail was chomped off by a fellow gator, as that is accepted behavior within alligator circles. Even with this, the dark days of Mr. Stubbs was not over. Inside a truck with 31 other gators, he was smuggled into Arizona before his luck finally turned. And what a one-eighty it took! In Arizona, alligators are exotic animals and illegal to import. When Arizona Game and Fish Department confiscated the truck near Casa Grande, a whole new life started for Mr. Stubbs. Remember, he was only eleven years old. In the wild, American alligators can reach the ripe and mature age of thirty to fifty years, so Stubbs certainly had his best years ahead of him. He was handed over to Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS), which in turn reached out to Center for Orthopedic Research and Education Institute (CORE). Together, they decided to aid Mr. Stubbs into the quality of life that he deserved.
“If the water was too deep for him to touch the bottom, he would roll over onto his back like a capsized boat,” said Johnson, the president of PHS in an official statement.
And so a close and intense teamwork of highly skilled people started to make the world’s first prosthetic tail for an alligator. It was no small task as size, density, weight distribution had to be exactly right. Also, Mr. Stubbs had to be taught to swim by dog paddling with his front legs. The swimming technique is not intuitive for a gator, and so naturally it took time and patience. But time flies when the goal is the right one. After barely a year the prosthesis was ready. As I’m writing this, Mr. Stubbs should be about to lose the inflatable water ring that helps him float around with his prosthetic tail. The orange flotation aid has been a necessary evil for six months and the cause of much mockery from other gators, according to the previously mentioned Mr. Johnson.
We ponder over the curious faith of Mr. Stubbs and chopped-off gator tails in general. Some of them we eat with dip and lemon, and some of them we go to lengths to save or even reconstruct. The tale (tail?) of Mr. Stubbs got a Hollywood ending. The tail on the dock not so much. It is fileted and almost clean of meat except for a few scaly inches on the dinosaur-like stump. A safe guess is that one of the local restaurants have secured their share and the chewier chunks were used for bait down here at the dock. Now, crabs and flies are picking clean the bones. The eco-system at work. In the scheme of all things, maybe that’s a happy tale (tail?), too. It was put into good use, anyway. And Mr. Stubbs sure don’t need it anymore.
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