This past weekend was the start of the two-and-a-half-month alligator-hunting season in Florida. It was also the first time the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge opened its gates to recreational gator hunting. It's the first wildlife refuge in the country to do so.
Of the 1,203 people who applied, only 11 were granted permits, each for two gators. Half of the permit holders started their hunt Friday at the much-anticipated opening.
The southern entrance to the park was lined with about a dozen protesters holding homemade signs that read: “Ban gator hunts,” “Get a real hobby, don’t kill gators for fun,” and “If you respect them, protect them.”
Bryan Wilson held a sign that said “No hunting in a refuge.” He is a coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
“We find it very oxymoronic that you’re killing an animal that should be revered here in the state of Florida, at an area that should be protecting wildlife,” Wilson said. “If you’re going to call it a wildlife area, the wildlife should be safe. It's like calling it a day care and allowing people to abduct and kill children.”
Almost two-dozen law enforcement officers from around the state were sent to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge to make sure the launch of the season went off without a hitch.
The opening of the refuge is a huge victory for Todd Hallman, president of the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association. He has been trying for 14 years to get the refuge to open for alligator hunting (it already allows the hunting of waterfowl).
“We should actually be deer hunting on this refuge, too. And hog hunting, but you have got to start somewhere, I guess,” he said.
Wildlife refuges were started by hunter President Theodore Roosevelt, who established the system at Pelican National Wildlife Refuge in 1903.
Under the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, hunting and fishing were made an official priority of the system.
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, is not against hunting. He argues hunting in this particular wildlife refuge, however, is not compatible with the purpose of the refuge.
“The Loxahatchee is the last remnant of the northern Everglades,” he says. “People come here for viewing wildlife, that’s the purpose of the refuge. That’s the purpose it serves hundreds of thousands of people in South Florida.”
Andy Gonzalez was among those who went out on Friday night, with Cathy and their friends Lyle and Andrea Sisson. The Sissons are gator-hunting veterans, and the crew goes out on their boat. The Sissons have a small taxidermy business on the side -- they mount gator heads, among other things.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it,” Gonzalez says about the permit to come out on the Loxahatchee. “I couldn’t believe it when I got the OK through the computer, that was pretty cool."
Because the Loxahatchee has been untouched by hunters for so long, Gonzalez and many of the other hunters expected to find not only a huge number of gators, but also perhaps even a record-sized one.
After six hours tooling around in the boat, Gonzalez spots a gator he’s interested in. They catch it on line and hook, harpoon it, and then put a bullet through its head using what’s called a bang stick.
“You know it’s an adrenaline rush, that's for sure,” says Lyle Sisson. “You get them on that line and they’re trashing and it’s incredible, it's absolutely incredible. It’ll get your blood pumping for sure.”
The celebration didn’t last for long, though. In a routine check after the hunt, Officer William Calvert notices Gonzalez’s permit was for a different area, not the Loxahatchee.
Gonzalez said his permit was checked at the gate. "I think it was just a mistake on both our parts."
"It’s not something we will take to court right now," said the officer.
He allowed Gonzalez to keep the gator.
Gonzalez’s 8-foot alligator was the biggest all night -- still 6 feet away from that record they were hoping for.