Green Unicorns

My wife and I recently traveled to Florida to hunt unicorns. We figured the definitive place to stalk these creatures was at that one-horned appendage hanging off the southeast corner of our continent.

And we were right. We found plenty of unicorns in the Sunshine state, of many strange and different varieties. And the most unusual was a green scaly beast called a “gator”.

We hired a man with an airboat to take us into the Everglades, as I wasn’t too keen on hiking in with waders. He called himself Captain Bocephus, and he claimed to know where all the gators were hiding. And he was right. Cap’n Bo knew how to scare up a passel of ‘em.

My wife scanning the swampland for alligators.

Actually, he called them out, making a crying “Owww, Owww, Owww” noise, that he claimed was the sound of a baby alligator in distress. Apparently, female alligators have powerful maternal instincts, and quickly come to the call of baby alligators in need of rescue.

This is a relatively small specimen. The average adult American alligator weighs 790 pounds, and is 13 feet long. You can guestimate the head-to-tail length by measuring the distance from the nostrils to the eyeballs. The distance in inches is the length in feet. I recommend wearing a suit of armor while measuring. The longest gator ever recorded was found in Louisiana, and measured 19.2 feet.

Males are attracted by this call, also. But not for the purpose of protecting the babies. They want to eat them.

Alligators belong to the crocodilian family, whose species are commonly known as alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caimans. I asked this crocodilian, “Hey, are you a caiman?” He replied, “Yeah, I’m alright. Thanks, man.”

I’d never seen an alligator in the wilds before, so you can imagine my horripilation when these giant water lizards swam up to edge of the low-decked airboat, within feet of my feet.

I guess I shouldn’t have been scared. Hell, this bird wasn’t. Since 2010, there have been only eight recorded fatal alligator attacks in the United States. Two fatalities involved women who were walking their dogs. Apparently, dogs make good alligator bait. One man was killed and eaten while burglarizing homes. And another man taunted an alligator, then jumped in the water to swim while ignoring alligator warning signs, and the pleas of friends not to swim. The gator grabbed this stupid fucker and drowned him. Darwin won again.

But Cap’n Bo reassured that they were more afraid of us than we were of them. And that in all his years of commanding an airboat, no alligator had ever jumped onto the deck. Yet. Even though they easily could, I thought I heard him utter as an aside.

This guy came so close, and seemed so docile, I felt an urge to reach out and stroke its back and rub its scales. But much as I wanted to pet the saurian beast, I suspected it might prefer my arm more as a meal than as a masseur.

It was uncanny how many gators were attracted to the airboat. Cap’n Bo would shut off the engine in the midst of a swampy canal, and then scan for alligators, while making his baby gator distress calls. And he always spotted them before my wife and I could see them. They’d be making a beeline straight for the boat, their heads forming a V-shaped wake. And they were possessed with an eagerness that belied hunger, and the expectancy of a dinner of fine delicacies.

One of the swampy canals Cap’n Bo motored us through, in search of alligators.

“I don’t feed ‘em, of course,” Cap’n Bo emphasized. “Why, if I were to be caught feeding ‘em, I’d be fined bigtime, my boat would be confiscated, and I’d lose my license.”

Alligators will eat anything, according to Cap’n Bo. But mainly they eat frogs, fish, snakes, turtles, muskrats, birds, dogs, panthers, deer, black bears, and each other. Sometimes they even eat rocks. These provide ballast in their bellies, for stable floating.

And yet those gators would vigorously bump the boat with their noses, acting as if they wanted something. Could a baby alligator distress call be that compelling to these mammoth killers?

Nobody knows just how long alligators live, but some estimates go over a hundred years. The oldest known alligator in captivity is 83 years old.

If so, the mothering instinct of an alligator is not to be underestimated. Like grizzly bears, don’t come between a female alligator and her offspring. She has a heart as big as a tree stump, and jaws powerful enough to give you four stumps.

Female alligators protect their young for about a year. They mate in April and May, although sometimes the males have difficulty “getting it up.” This is known as a reptile dysfunction. Females build nests in the summer, when they lay their eggs. If the incubation temperature of an egg goes above 86 degrees, the offspring will be a male. Lower temperatures produce females. About five females are hatched, for every male.

If not, then Captain Bocephus is a big fat liar, who secretly feeds these swamp lizards, so he can show them off to tourists. But no matter. We were impressed either way.

Alligators are found as far north as the Carolinas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and as far west as East Texas. Louisiana has the most gators, with Florida a close second, accommodating more than a million gators apiece. Southern Florida is the only area where both alligators and crocodiles live side-by-side.

As the tenebrous fingers of twilight grasped our swampy surroundings, Cap’n Bo fired up the fan and motored us out onto an open grassy area. He pointed the airboat toward the setting sun, where we watched a ball of fire sink into the Everglades. It was romantic.

Sunset over the Everglades.

Finally, through the wind-chilled dusk, and clouds of gnats and skeeters, we raced over reeds toward the shoreline dock. Our paid hours were up, and it was time for us landlubbers to return to our element.

We’d had a successful day of unicorn hunting. But we knew we could bag more, in the fantastic flatlands of Florida. We just needed some sleep.

Ain’t it cute? We fell in love with alligators during our boat ride. It’s nice to know they’ve been around for 37 million years. Crocodilians and birds are the only animals left on earth that descended from dinosaurs. With the possible exception of unicorns.

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