Hunters headed out in boats on a stormy Friday evening for the first alligator hunt in the history of Florida's Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
"We're not leaving tonight with anything less than a 12-footer," said Bishop Wright Jr., of West Palm Beach, who was going hunting with a friend who obtained a permit. "We're trophy hunting tonight."
Down the dirt road from the boat ramp, located at the northern edge of Broward County, a dozen animal rights activists demonstrated against the hunt, holding signs that said "Stop Killing Our Wildlife," "Ban Gator Hunts" and "Get a Real Hobby -- Don't Kill Gators for Fun." About 40 hunters stood closer to the ramp, most not there to hunt but to counter the animal rights activists.
The Loxahatchee refuge, the largest remnant of the northern Everglades, runs west of U.S. 441 from Boca Raton to Wellington. Competition for hunting permits was fierce, with 1,203 people entering a lottery for 11 permits. Each hunter is allowed to kill two alligators.
"It's just an untouched gem, to be able to hunt in a place that's never been hunted before," said Tony Majercik, a veteran alligator hunter from West Palm Beach, one of the 11 lottery winners. "Plus it's doing something good for the refuge. None of the gators there have any fear of man. They'll come right up to the boat and take the fish off your line."
He prefers to hunt at night, when flashlights reveal alligators by their eye shine. There are two stages to hunting an alligator, he said, catching it and killing it.
To catch one, he said, he has used a stout fishing rod, a harpoon attached to a rope or a crossbow. Once he has caught the alligator, he kills it with a device called a bangstick -- a pole that discharges a .44 caliber round upon making contact with the alligator's skull. Other bangsticks use different types of ammunition, such as a shotgun shell.
The biggest one he killed stretched more than 12 feet, caught in the West Palm Beach Canal.
Despite going after huge, toothy reptiles with harpoons and firearms, he said he and his friends have never been injured.
"It's pretty safe," he said. "Just good, safe redneck fun."
But animals rights activists protesting the hunt said it was a cruel activity that had no place on land set aside to protect wildlife.
"We find it ridiculous that a wildlife refuge is allowing the animals to be hunted," said Bryan Wilson, of the Orlando suburb of Winter Springs, central Florida coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. "If this is going to be an area set aside for the animals, they shouldn't be hunted."
Hunters countered that the refuge could easily stand to lose a few alligators, which they said had long since lost their fear of people and that hunters should be allowed to go into the refuge if they didn't cause any harm.
"I'm out here to show my support," said John Rosier, of Davie, president of the Everglades Coordinating Council, a hunting group. "It's a momentous occasion. It's the first gator hunt they've had here since forever. I think hunters always get a bad name, and we're tired of getting pushed around. We're not a bunch of crazy idiots running around drinking beer and shooting guns."
The area around the boat ramp was crowded with law enforcement officers, including some from the Broward Sheriff's Office, local police departments and state and federal wildlife agencies. But the protest was peaceful.
Rolf Olson, project leader for the refuge, said everything appeared to be going smoothly. The refuge has said the alligator population of the refuge is so healthy, with 134 counted in a single canal, that the loss of 22 would have no impact.
The hunt runs through October, with hunters allow to begin an hour before sundown and continue until an hour past sunrise.
Since the hunt was proposed two years ago, as part of a general expansion of hunting at national wildlife refuges, it has been highly controversial. Hundreds of letters and several petitions from around the world came in, most strongly opposed to the hunt.
"It's not a refuge, despite what the sign says, as long as there's state-sponsored animal slaughter going on," said Don Anthony, spokesman for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. "
The hunters say the refuge needs to be hunted and that all of the meat will be used.
Majercik, one of the 11 permit holders, said he treats the meat essentially like pork, favoring a rollatini-sort of dish that involves flattening the meat and rolling it with bacon and sausage.
While he said he respects the protesters right to express an opinion, he said they were wrong about the alligator hunt.
"It's not doing anything to harm the refuge," he said. "All of the meat is getting used, nothing will be wasted. Nobody's out there to torture an alligator. They're after a clean harvest, a clean kill."
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