While attending college in Central Florida, studying to become a doctor, I was introduced to alligator hunting. Illegal alligator hunting. My conversational partner in my Spanish 101 class was a self identifying Florida Cracker. One of his biggest hobbies ( or the hobbies that he kept photographic evidence of) was to troll the lakes and rivers of Florida in a boat with his buddies, find alligators, and then shoot them with shotguns at very close distances. On Monday’s he’d come to class with drugstore 4×6 prints of last weekends exploits. I did not grow up around guns or hunting (when I say I grew up in the south, I really mean Boca Raton), the resulting photos were gruesome. El alligator esta muy muerto, donde está el baño, tengo que bailar?!.
When hunted legally no shotguns are involved, in fact it is illegal.*The proper way to hunt an alligator is with a crossbow or to sneak up on it a harpoon with rope attached, once you harpoon it a bangstick is used to kill the alligator. A bangstick looks like a broomstick, but with a bullet inside, when pushed against something solid the bullet is discharged.
The alligator hunting season lasts about a month and in order to hunt legally, hunters need to apply for a permit. The rules of alligator hunting are: no firearms, and hunting can only be done when the sun is down. Earlier in the year of 2007 there were more human and dog deaths from alligators then previous years. More then one hunter mentioned hunting alligators as a way to avenge Fluffy’s death. Alligator farming is only legal in Lousiana, Georgia, and Florida. After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the alligator farms in Lousiana were destroyed and as a result the Florida farms were received a boom in business. This resulted in more work for the taxidermists to the migrant workers picking up seasonal work in the skinning factories.
If you were an alligator living on a farm, your life could go one of two ways. You’ll be hanging out with your brothers and sisters in these windowless tank structures that sort of resemble igloos in shape ( I have never seen an actual igloo, so more so the igloos you see in childrens books). One day, when you’re about 3 years old, a farmer will hop into the tank and check out your skin to see how many scratches are on it. If you don’t have a lot of scratches on your hide (congrats on your nice coat!!) then you’ll be harvested right away for your hide. The price of alligator hide is dicatated by the Japanese market. If you are an alligator with lots of scratches (you slob!!!) then you get to live a few years longer and get fattened up, then you’ll be harvested for your meat.
This is where eating alligator gets weird (or more weird (is the glass half full?)). If you order alligator in a restaurant, you do not know if the alligator was a hunted alligator living off of dogs and trash eating raccoons, or if the alligator was a farm raised alligator fed a steady diet. It’ll feel like an episode from Portlandia but next time you order gator in a restaurant you should ask. Seriously! Knowing that tourists will pay to see weird shit, farms also practice agro-tourism. They’ll put on alligator feeding shows, which is a win-win situation because they have to feed the alligators anyways. The whole industry is very resourceful and no part of the alligator will go to waste. Everything from the alligators claws are taxidermied and used as back scratchers, to the bones being pulverized and used for fertilizer.
All of the photographs in the series Alligator Hunting and Commerce were taken over a two week period in the summer of 2007. Even after 4 months of production the days were full of non stop surprises. Returning to the South (born and raised) to photograph this project put me in situations that challenged my morals and ethics. Along the way I met amazing characters that would fit perfectly into any Southern Gothic novel. Home is where the heat is..
*It is illegal to hunt an alligator with a firearm unless the alligator is a nuisance alligator and you have a permit to kill nuisance alligators. Alligators don’t talk. Dead alligators don’t talk either. There are a lot of nuisance alligators killed each year. In 2007, the year I photographed this project 5,963 alligators were killed via hunting permit. 10,348 alligators were killed under the alligator nuisance laws. These are only the documented numbers.