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Our Own Monsters

My fear of alligators originated during childhood, but until now our paths had never crossed

Issue 44, March / April 2003

Photograph by Greg Allikas

The alligator's glory days are over. This can happen after two hundred million years. For a long time it seemed like the party would never end. The ancient gator was king of the swamp, and the entire world was swampland. Under the guise of a whole smorgasbord of vicious and prominently fanged relatives (including the ten-ton, bus-length SuperCroc), the alligator not only shared the steamy, leafy old world with dinosaurs, he ate them. He ate the dinosaurs. And his descendants were strong enough to survive whatever catastrophe finished them off.

The alligator was there to witness the biological advent of birds—in fact, since ancient birds were really just dinosaurs with incidental feathers, the alligator was sort of their first cousin. He ate them anyway. Millions of years later, he watched as another species became ambitious: plodding, hairy gorillas stood up and began to walk on two legs, crossing land bridges and exploring swamps. O miraculous Nature! 

He ate them. 

He watched, eyes peeking just above the water, as humans learned to domesticate animals. He ate their conveniently gathered livestock, their tame dogs. But soon the hominids, with their large heads, began wielding weapons too strong to dodge. For the first time in history, the alligator was eaten. Someone else was king of the swamp. 

This is where I come in. I am eating a fried alligator salad at Mulate’s, a Cajun restaurant in Baton Rouge. It is my first month in Louisiana. The meat is tough, a little bland. Even gastronomically, this is an offensive beast. The salad is my attempt at revenge. A distant and cowardly strike, I know, but after a solid month of nightmares, I have come to hate these creatures. 

Like most powerful fears, my gatorphobia has roots in early childhood. My parents used to make me read a book of Christian propaganda thinly disguised as children’s stories. Some of the ideological fables condemned drugs, truancy, and smoking; others advocated kindness to animals and obedience to parents. The most affecting lesson for me, however, told of a boy named Swami, who swam (I see the nominal pun now) in waters clearly marked NO SWIMMING. Guarding the lake, of course, was a huge alligator. The resulting conflict was captured—and permanently etched into my youthful mind—in a pictorial spread of little Swami thrashing in front of the wide-open jaws of that reptilian soldier of Satan. It was by far the most stunning picture in the book: the creature's cold, slotted eyes, the muscular, fleshy pink tongue, water foaming in the wake of the deep-green, banded tail. The artist had really thrown himself into the task of visually punishing this little boy, which makes me think he had a dread either of alligators (which I can understand) or of little boys (which I have experienced fleetingly). Whatever the motivation, it was a centerfold of horror, and the book has had a lasting effect. I carry its priggishness even today, eschewing drugs, truancy, smoking. Helping sick birds. Calling my parents frequently. But most of all: fearing alligators. 

This gatorphobia is as centrally entrenched as all my basic knowledge: Fire is hot, water is cool; alligators are rapacious beasts sent from Hell to gorge themselves on the innards of innocent boys. It’s primal. So regardless of how rational and ecologically sympathetic I am toward other creatures, the formative prejudice remains. I believe that alligators—craggy, prehistoric, armored windsocks—have no business in the modern world. That’s what the alligator salad is about. 

And that’s why it’s so painfully unfair that chance—in the form of graduate school—has taken me from the peaceful forests of Oregon to South Louisiana, one of the few pockets of civilization where gators still thrive. My local friends’ stories are all very matter-of-fact: They have fished with them, lost dogs to them. Nearly everybody has a first-person account of an alligator run-in. One friend tells me about the time her father wrapped a baby gator in a pair of jeans, smuggled it home, and kept it in the backyard pond until finally it grew too large and waddled off. Another friend claims to have hunted alligators (evidently Louisiana’s campaign to save them is occasionally too successful, and so hunting licenses are issued in an effort to thin the population). 

While browsing a discarded Baton Rouge Advocate one afternoon not long after my move to the South, I noticed the headline alligator eats spaniel. I recoiled in horror. Some have accused me of loving my miniature dachshund with excessive zeal (let’s just say he has his own car seat), and, because of alligator risks, he is forbidden to swim in or even approach any of Louisiana’s muddy ponds and streams. The article reported that a family in Mississippi had been camping at a state park when a ten-foot alligator surfaced next to the two sisters, who were swimming with the family spaniels. When one of the dogs barked, the alligator responded in its customary mammal-gobbling way. State wildlife officials later tracked him down and killed him. I steered my dachshund away from water with extra vigilance after reading that. 

While most Louisiana locals have come to terms with alligators patrolling their waterways, outsiders are less comfortable. This sets up two fundamental and contradictory views. The Outsider view (to which I subscribe wholeheartedly) motivates Californians to produce horror movies starring giant reptiles; it inspires authors of Christian storybooks to cast gators as demonic assassins. This view has a long and venerable history and is nicely exemplified by William Bartram, the eighteenth-century botanist and explorer, whose powerful descriptions of the American wilderness impressed, among others, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Bartram was one of the first outsiders to record his horror towards the American South, which makes him the pioneer of a science since joined by Northerners everywhere. In Bartram’s Travels we find the author canoeing through uncharted bayous and swamps, vulnerable constantly to what he calls “the subtle attacks of the alligators”:

Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake.The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder. 

Though this type of dramatic exaggeration is a common feature of the outsider view, no alligator, however ravenous and powerful its jaws, has ever produced smoke from its nose. And yet Bartram claims to have been surrounded by alligators with nasal smokestacks who, just as a bonus, belched floods of water and clapped their jaws strategically near his ears to stun him. Several times they tried to overturn his boat, then followed him ashore to steal his fish. In short, they act just as churlish and unwelcoming as we (the sane ones, the outsiders) would expect them to. 

The Insider view, favored by Cajuns and naturalists, attempts to establish a kind of brotherhood with the alligator. Two centuries after Bartram’s horrified account, E.A. McIlhenny, the eminent Louisiana sportsman and Tabasco baron, gave us a typical insider’s paean to all things long and toothy in his book The Alligator's Life History. McIlhenny is often referred to as a “backyard naturalist,” though it helps to remember that his backyard, Avery Island, was the size of most state parks. With this land to play on, McIlhenny helped to save Louisiana’s egret population and to curse the state with nutria, large rodents that tend to breed out of control and clog waterways—and which, legend has it, were introduced when a few of them escaped from one of McIlhenny’s cages. He even raised and trained a pet bear. But it was alligators he preferred. Early in life he developed what I see as a pathological fondness for them; some of his boyhood stunts take the cake for native Louisianian alligator moxie: 

We would attract them by imitating the barks and cries of dogs and by making loud popping noises with our lips, as these sounds seemed to arouse the ‘gators’ curiosity, and they would come swimming to us from all directions. We had no fear of them and would swim around the big fellows, dive under them and sometimes treat them with great disrespect by bringing handfuls of mud from the bottom and “chunking” it in their eyes. 

McIlhenny goes on to defend alligators as “maligned and much misunderstood” and eventually gets so drunk with hyperbole that he calls them “harmless and picturesque.”

Like the others, this dream begins as an eerily tweaked cliché. My wife and I are walking hand in hand in a kind of pseudo-medieval park, at the center of which is a lake visibly rife with alligators. (Only landscape architects of medieval dreamscapes, by the way, would think to stock a public lake with alligators.) A line of small, unmanned gondolas bobs nonsensically near the shore. But the clinching evidence that this is a dream—besides the thick stone walls, the gondolas, the psychedelically purple sky—is that we’re walking near this liquid nest of Evil without spasmodic fear. In fact, we’re about to have a picnic. The path leads us right up to the lake. As we sidle along the tepid water, the path narrows. The cobblestones become uneven. And suddenly, in the inevitable, horrible clumsiness of dreams, my wife—this human I love, this human whom I do not want to be devoured by a large lizard as if she were an egret or a hunting dog—falls into the lake. 

One of the gators promptly darts over, thrashes his snout above the surface, and, seizing her in his impressive jaws, plunges under. I know the reptilian modus operandi: He’s supposed to roll her in water grass, tuck her under a log, save her for later. 

But I am a dream-hero: this will not happen. I leap into the water, hammering my feet at the alligator’s leathery back, which should be made into a purse, or, more ecologically, chewed on by lions. I will vanquish the monster, save the maiden. I make a big splash. Gators swarm. In fantastic synchronicity, seven of them clamp down on my torso at once—burning, bleeding death. This is how the nightmare always ends. 

I sit up in bed. This time the dream is obviously real: My stomach is still on fire, excruciatingly cramped. Except I can'’t see the blood. In fact, I can’t find a wound at all. But the pain! And then I realize that this is severe indigestion. And I remember the alligator salad. As I leap out of bed, suddenly it all makes sense. The universe has passed judgment. By eating that salad, I overturned the hierarchy of Good and Evil. Innocent, tragic prey became predator. Alligators everywhere now have an ethical carte blanche to enjoy me as thoroughly as ever alligators enjoyed a human meal. I am legal chum. I deserve a thousand snapping jaws. I was the carnivore first.

When I initially heard about Alligator Bayou, I didn’t really believe it. It is the worst idea ever: a commercial venture offering tours of alligator-infested waters and, as if that weren’t criminal enough, canoe rentals, by means of which you can paddle out, alone, into areas clearly marked no swimming: alligators. I could not stop thinking about it. It was the locale of all my bad dreams, the very heart of danger. This was Evil’s headquarters.

It turned out that Hell was dangerously close to my house, in a picturesque swamp just ten minutes outside of Baton Rouge. When I arrived, it shocked me by being quietly beautiful: in place of the carnage I had expected, there were only oaks wearing shaggy beards of gray moss, and placid water freshly painted with a layer of neon-green algae; in place of the horrified screams of the recently mauled, a soothing silence. 

The guided tour seemed best for someone as boat-clumsy as myself, so I passed up the canoes (which to me looked like a row of floating coffins) and joined a crowd waiting near the water. Evil, as usual, was terribly popular: Elderly couples mutely surveyed the water, hands clasped, and parents chased shrieking children, for whose soon-to-be shortened lives I nearly shed a tear. We crowded the dock. Though I didn’t get a head count, I guessed we were a week’s worth of gator food. Most of my future tour-mates were busy either spraying or being sprayed with mosquito repellent. Ironic, I thought, to worry about such a tiny bite. 

I scanned the faces in search of our guide, and settled immediately on a Cajun, a swarthy little salamander of a man who had surely, I thought, navigated every branch of every mud-choked stream in the vicinity, spent nights floating facedown in swampy shallows, supped on mosquitoes, and taught his children to catch fish with their mouths and eat them raw. This had to be him: our Ahab of the bayou. 

Just when I had resigned myself to a backwater death at the hands of Admiral Lizard, however, a hearty, sociable, non-saurian man—a man with his shirt tucked in—bounded out of the ticket office. He spoke in complete sentences, tossing off words like respite and epitomize. His only questionable feature was a dramatic mustache, white at the tips, but I figured I could live with that. He introduced himself as Jim Ragland and led us onto The Alligator Queen, a canopied, rectangular swamp cruiser bobbing just offshore. I estimated it would take a team of seven alligators, simultaneously lunging with vertical snouts, to flip it over. 

We pushed off from the bank amid a flurry of Ragland’s puns (“You’re from Utah? Me-tah!”) and throwaway jokes (“You can usually tell when I’m lying because my lips are moving”) and cruised along the green water at about ten miles per hour. Ragland pointed out a heron, a nutria family, a tree full of vultures. He recited the definition of a swamp, listed historical dates, and told us that this place had originally been called Crocodile Bayou. Then he produced a mini-petting zoo of swamp creatures he kept stashed on the back of the boat in plastic containers: first a nutria, who wouldn’t stop defecating, then a turtle, who bit the brim of someone’s hat with surprising conviction. As Ragland talked, I scanned the shoreline for frothing water and steaming nostrils. I didn’t trust the tour’s illusion of safety. 

Finally, the boat’s captain interrupted one of Ragland’s jokes. “Hey, Jim!” he shouted from his control panel. “What'd Bartram call this place? ‘Crocodile Bayou’?” 

Bartram’s name magnified all my nightmare images of teeth and smoke and danger. 

Ragland said that yes indeed, he had called it that, why would the boat captain happen to be asking, please? 

“ 'Cause there’s something heading right at the boat!” 

At once everyone forgot manners and rushed, as a unit, to the front of the vessel. Friends elbowed friends, old women wrestled children. 

Ragland, on the other hand, hurried to the back of the boat and disappeared into a closet. I remained in my seat, stunned. My fear transcended the skit’s blatant campiness. I watched Ragland pop back out of the closet carrying an extremely smelly piece of chicken. He hurried through the crowd, which parted at the stench. As he moved to the front of the boat, he started chanting a refrain of nasal squeaks and bleats: “Eow, eow, eow.” This, evidently, was a professional-quality imitation of a baby alligator’s one-word vocabulary, a sonic alert to the mother that the young one is ready to hatch or is hungry or lost or scared. It translates roughly as “bring your teeth over here.” 

I could vaguely make out a swishing shape in the water. Then it disappeared. Someone at the front of the boat shouted, "Get me a gun!"

He leaned over the boat’s railing and proffered the spoiled chicken. “Eow, eow, eow,” he said. 

By this time I had gotten out of my seat, but my initial hesitation left me at the extreme rear of the crowd along with the infirm and the locally blasé. Standing on my tiptoes and leaning over an old woman’s shoulder, I could vaguely make out a swishing shape in the water. Then it disappeared. Someone at the front of the boat shouted, “Get me a gun!” 

Then an odd thing—an improper, unacceptable thing—happened. For some reason—perhaps a whiff of the dense fog of fear hanging over the water, an odor stronger than Ragland’s chicken—the alligator made its way over to my side of the boat. Ragland and the rest of the crowd stumbled after him, but for a moment I stood there alone with the alligator, looking a month’s worth of nightmares in the eye. It was six feet long, exactly as long as I am, but looked much bigger. It just hovered there, churning the water with its tail, waiting either for the rancid chicken or for me to jump overboard. It had the monstrous efficiency of a machine, a solid engine of armor and muscle idling in wait of something to chew up. I couldn’t help feeling like that something: soft and weak, skin and organs, a bag of alligator food, easy on the teeth. Only the alligator’s nostrils, eyes, and tail protruded from the water, a position called “minimum exposure posture,” which in actuality is much more intimidating than that clinical term suggests. The eyes—static, cold little slivers—scared me most, mainly because I could not tell whether they were looking at me. That indeterminacy foiled all my efforts to anthropomorphize and assign intentions, which, I have found, is the easiest way to deal with monsters. 

I stepped back from the railing.

Ragland tossed a drumstick into the water. The gator snatched it, snapped the bone in its jaw, and then slowly swam away.

About halfway through the tour, the crowd left The Alligator Queen to walk around the edges of the swamp. Still numb from the recent encounter, I was the last to leave the boat. Just as I stepped onto the spongy ground, however, Ragland stopped me. He pried the lid off one of his plastic storage containers and produced not a nutria or a raccoon or a turtle but a two-and-a-half-foot-long alligator, the lap version of the one who had (or had not) wanted to kill me minutes before. I wondered what twistedly specific torture Ragland had planned for me. Holding the mini-lizard at arm’s length, he ordered me to grasp the base of its tail in one hand and its head in the other. He told me that if I stroked the gator’s head, it would bark. He demonstrated. It barked. 

Then he told me he wanted me to run off the boat shouting, “Hey, everyone, look what I found in the commode!” His tone was so matter-of-fact that I found it impossible to object. Besides, a part of me didn’t want to refuse. The gator stared at me with an eye like a kitten’s. I was thrilled by the idea of holding—and controlling—what had until recently been only a frightful illustration from childhood, then a nightmare, then a stare-down diffused by rancid chicken. 

So I took Ragland’s gator. Its tail was gnarled and rough as a tree trunk, but its yellow underbelly was surprisingly soft. I had done some research on alligators and, holding this one, all the abstract facts filed themselves into new patterns of relevance. I knew this alligator’s life story, his past and his future. I knew, for instance, that he was the most advanced of all living reptiles, and yet his brain was smaller than his eye. His ancestral body structure hadn’t changed in two hundred million years. He had eighty teeth and an articulated lower jaw, the upper being merely a rigid extension of his skull. He had three eyelids. His future mates—lusty ladies six- or seven- or eight-feet long—would lay eggs in June, hatch them in August, and protect them to the death against possums and humans. He would probably become senile at age forty and die by age fifty. His stomach acid—unleashed by a poacher’s knife or a larger, more aggressive version of himself—would burn human skin. 

I stared into that eye, beaming thoughts to him through the same system of beastly telepathy I use to communicate with my dachshund (to tell him, for instance, when I think he’s bullying the cat). I told the gator that if he bit me, I would understand but that we would have to fight to the death. I wasn’t cocky, just honest. You may have the stronger mouth, I told him. You’ve got me there. But I’m quite large. Killing me would not be easy. 

He stared back, his rate of breathing remaining roughly the same.

Once we understood each other, the alligator and I dutifully enacted Ragland’s skit. I ran off the boat yelling to scare everyone. (I should admit that I edited the script slightly, changing the more formal commode to the coarser but in-character toilet.) My alligator and I became an instant tourist attraction, encircled densely by a boatload of swamp-walkers. A crowd of hands prodded him, pinching his knotty tail, poking his belly, snapping in front of his eyes. They kept making him bark, and, though I could tell his heart wasn't really in it after the first few times, he played along. I began to feel, if not love or reverence or admiration, at least a protective urge toward the gator. I let the kids prod him for a few minutes and then returned him to Ragland, who put him back in his box.

The Alligator Bayou tour ended in a storm of puns and Cajun dancing. I wanted more, so I followed Ragland, who was unloading the boat, and hassled him with questions. It became clear, as we talked, what an exaggeration of his character the tour persona was—he immediately dropped the jokes, though he still spoke quickly. Among other things, he gave me the insider’s take on that newspaper story about the alligator eating the spaniel. Ragland said the alligator had been fed consistently by park visitors. Feeding a gator, he explained, breaks down the animal’s natural fear of humans. Feeling bold, I cited what I saw as hypocrisy: the rancid-chicken routine on his tour. He said it was a dilemma inherent to running an alligator tour. Originally, he had promised feed the gators. He found, however, that visiting boaters started doing it for him, without forethought or restraint. He took it over in an effort to control it. This also helps him to get consistent sightings, which helps him to educate tourists. But he acknowledges the paradox: The feeding, while softening humans’ fear, makes the alligators more dangerous. And he worries about the gators every day, afraid that canoers, mistaking proximity for aggression, will club one of the swamp’s curious reptiles with an oar. The spaniel-eating gator’s death, according to Ragland, was not its fault. It had been trained, just as systematically as the spaniel, to associate with humans. 

Ragland’s attitude toward alligators puzzled me. I had always thought you had to choose sides, but he was a realist, neither advocate nor enemy. He seemed, in fact, to be sick of talking about them, sick of our infantile preoccupation with them—as if humans, with our huge, overdeveloped brains, should be busy with things more productive than gossiping at a safe distance about prehistoric remnants. 

I told him about my nightmares. 

He chuckled. “Alligators are very primitive,” he said. “They have tiny brains that are only good for two things: breeding and eating. They’re not these horrific predators out looking for humans. They’re not as exciting as you think, and I don't mean that in a bad way. People create their own monsters.” He told me that many gators live in the swamp around his house, and I got the sense that he could have swapped childhood stories with McIlhenny. 

A fat, black dog trotted up to us with a vacant, happy look, and I asked Ragland—perhaps insensitively—why this dog hadn’t been eaten yet. He said he’d never had any problems with his dogs, but he acknowledged the risk.

“Dogs are stupid because we’ve domesticated them,” he said. “What does a deer do when it’s scared? How about a rabbit? They run away. Dogs make noise and run right at it.” 

I thanked Ragland and stood to leave, then decided to make one last stab at sensationalism. I asked him about the biggest alligator in the swamp. 

“About fourteen and a half, fifteen feet,” he said. “But you won’t see many of these big behemoths anymore. People have been around too long; they want the trophy. They consider alligators fun to shoot. 

“I won't tell people where the big one is,” he added, “because they’ll kill him.”

Interstate 10 cuts across the entire southern half of the United States, from Jacksonville, Florida, to Los Angeles. The tiny segment I traverse regularly, the seventy miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, offers minimal scenery: a dense tree line, constant signs of roadwork, and occasional glimpses of muddy, stagnant bayous. Usually there’s not much to distract you from the pickup trucks riding your bumper, the 18-wheelers drifting into your lane. 

One afternoon, however, on the shoulder of the road about ten miles outside of Baton Rouge, I saw the remains of a gruesome accident. Just outside the white-painted line lay the tail and two back legs of what had obviously been an immense alligator. It would have dwarfed the one I’d seen on the tour, would have eaten the one I’d held. The front half, including the head, had been torn off, and so the carcass ended mid-gator. The inside of it looked like a smashed pumpkin. It was powerfully incongruous to see that kind of strength defeated and ruined. A semi must have hit it, because any other vehicle would have been thrown into the median, leaving more victims than one. 

I found out later that this type of roadkill, on a smaller scale, is fairly common in South Louisiana. Many of the region’s roads cut through swamps, partly because swampland is cheap but also because the terrain leaves no alternative. Of course, a road means nothing to the alligator whose world it bisects. The gator’s efficiency in water is counterbalanced by its awkwardness on land: the tail, a powerful propulsive force in crossing a bayou, drags uselessly on a freeway.

The other day I was blowing hot air against my miniature dachshund’s belly (he likes that) and singing, “Sweet monkey muffin, sweet monkey muffin,” when I came to a strange realization. I noticed that, if you look at my lazy, domesticated, potbellied dog with one eye closed and with your head cocked at an angle, he bears a striking resemblance, at least geometrically, to a young alligator. In fact, he's about the size of the one I held on Ragland’s tour. He has fuzz in place of scales, of course, and he’s black and tan instead of swamp green—and he is without question, and in exact opposition to his reptilian doppelgänger, a sweet monkey muffin buffalo chicken. But he does have that vicious, tooth-lined snout. And, in the bloody spirit of carnivores everywhere, he tries to roll in and eat dead birds whenever we pass them on our walks. I kept blowing and singing as I thought about all of this, and in his joy the dog parted his teeth and flopped his tongue out to the side. He yawned, and I looked down between his two long jaws all the way to the pink throat hole, which was as deep and predatory as any gator’s in a Christian storybook.

Slightly troubled, I got up and sprinted down the hall. He chased me, his legs kicking rapidly back and forth, ears flapping wildly behind a toothy smile. To prefer one animal to another, I thought, is one thing: a curiosity of taste. To invest the preference with morality, however, is nonsense. I bounded over a shoe in the hallway and ducked behind the couch; my dachshund charged after me, panting. 

The tendency of our culture to sort animals into simple categories—good and evil, cuddly and fierce—warps us all. Meek grandmothers, inspired by old wallpaper patterns of kittens playing croquet at tea parties, become obsessive curmudgeons who preach about the deep spirituality of cats while denouncing all dogs as hooligans. Their husbands, dreaming of past hunting trips and a painting they once saw of an Irish setter mauling a ferret, maintain the opposite view just as fervently, occasionally poisoning stray felines with antifreeze to make their point. 

I thought about all of this as I circled the dining-room table, my dachshund’s tags jingling maniacally behind me. Though there are several obvious differences between alligators and dogs—mainly a few millennia of forced acclimation to humans—none of them has anything to do with evil. And yet even the alligator-loving McIlhenny seems to have been tinged with this prejudice: He claims to have once shot eighty gators in a few hours after one of them ate his dog.

Tired of all the mock-aggression, I dropped to the floor to let my dachshund catch me, then flipped him onto his back so I could blow again on his belly. The human mind, cowed by mute reality, sprinkles meaning around indiscriminately until reality becomes unrecognizable, half-buried under layers of sentimental sediment. I stroked my dog’s snout, and he thumped his tail ecstatically on the carpet. That is one advantage, I thought, to the alligator’s almond-sized brain: It never ascribes meanings where they don’t belong. It never conjures stupid nightmares about things that pose no threat to it.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson's essays and book reviews have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New OrleansTimes-Picayune, and Exquisite Corpse. He a former book critic at New York Magazine, and is currently the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine.