It was the 1960s and alligators were on America’s Endangered Species List. In Pre-Disney Florida, tourists flocked to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs to look through thick glass windows at snakes, alligators, and giant turtles. Ross Allen was an earlier incarnation of The Crocodile Hunter minus the Australian accent. He put on shows to demonstrate how to safely pick up a rattlesnake, milk the poison from snake fangs to manufacture antivenin, and make an alligator fall asleep by lightly stroking its belly. As kids living near the famous attraction, we saw the show every time out-of-town relatives came to visit. We’d seen it so many times we didn’t even jump when the snake sprang up to pop a balloon, moving faster than the eye could see. We weren’t nearly as impressed with the attraction as city kids because we lived among the wildlife every day. Toads and tadpoles and cotton-mouth moccasins lived in the spot where we swam. We always made lots of noise on the way to the lake to try to scare them away before we got there. Coral snakes lived in the garage. An afternoon of swimming was often interrupted when someone spotted what might look to a city kid like a floating log. We knew the floating log was a gator and we’d have to get out of the water until it went away. Every night we were sung to sleep by the music of the forest: owls, frogs, crickets, and the occasional bellow of a bull alligator to its mate. To us the most exciting thing about Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute was that he sometimes bought live snakes from locals and he paid a dollar per foot. He also bought turtles. The tiny ones would bring 10 cents each.
One summer morning after Mother left to go to work in town, Daddy walked down to the spot on the lake bank where he fished. His habit was to feed the breakfast table scraps to the fish. On this particular morning as he was tossing toast crusts into the water he looked down and noticed a three-foot-long baby alligator right in front of him. He called for Tom to bring him a net and he quickly scooped it up. Probably the result of an injury, one of the baby’s eyes was scaled over—otherwise it could not have been captured so easily. We were used to alligators—big ones—out in the lake, but to have a little one in the yard was big news. Could we keep it? What could we name it? Even though Daddy immediately shot down the idea of keeping it, we were still so excited we called everyone we knew. We called Mother at work. (Now that I’m a working mother, I see this from a completely different side. Imagine being at work and learning that your three kids are at home playing with an alligator.) We called all the neighbors. We even called Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute. We knew they kept alligators and that they bought snakes and turtles, so we reasoned that they might want to buy our alligator. If a snake brought a dollar a foot, surely a gator would make us rich!
Tom was barefoot in the yard with a large cardboard barrel and a leaf rake discovering that it’s not the size of the gator in the fight but the size of the fight in the gator that makes a difference. The baby’s tiny, razor-sharp teeth destroyed the wooden rake handle effortlessly and I don’t believe Tom ever did manage to get that little monster on its back so he could try the belly stroking thing. Tom was still staging his own alligator wrestling show for the neighbors when we learned that we had to set the gator free immediately or face a mandatory three-year prison term for capturing Federally-protected wildlife. So we reluctantly took the excitement back to the lake and were amazed at how quickly our imagined fortune swam away.
Before we had time to fully grieve our loss—more excitement. One of the neighbors coming through the woods to see the gator had spotted a huge black snake. We followed the snake along the fence line and with the help of a vacationer at the campground just on the other side of the fence, we managed to get it into a large burlap bag. This we were sure we could sell to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute. It was a rare king snake. So with Daddy’s permission (and probably to get us out of his hair so he could get some work done), the three of us and the three McCandless kids piled into Daddy’s Volkswagen Beetle with the snake tied up in the trunk and headed toward Silver Springs. The snake brought 5 dollars—enough for ice cream sandwiches for everybody on the way back home.
So while city kids were buying tickets at a tourist attraction to spend an exciting and memorable summer day looking at snakes and alligators through thick glass windows, we went home to find something else to do to fill the rest of an exciting and memorable summer day—it was almost noon.