Along for the hunt with 'Gator Getters'

By Victoria

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) -- They're as much a part of the Lowcountry landscape as oyster beds, live oaks and shrimp boats. But just the sight of alligators excites and terrifies people.

"They're a critter that has survived 260 million years so they got something going for them," said Ron Russell.

Russell has done what most would never consider. He's had his hands on thousands of alligators.

"An alligator doesn't have it in him to be aggressive toward a human," said Russell. "They're a defensive type of animal that would much rather just be left alone."

Russell started Gator Getters Consultants nearly 20 years ago. He removes nuisance gators, guides hunts and teaches people as well as law enforcement how to deal with alligators.

"I've caught thousands of alligators. I've had two in my whole career that actually worried me," said Russell. "One was Charlie at the weapons station because he was used to getting fed and he was a big boy. The other was actually a wild alligator that for some reason thought I had him cornered enough to where he decided to come at me."

This is the busy season for Russell. It's spring and the gators are looking for sun and a little love.

"They know mating season is coming up," said Russell. They're moving around trying to find their own little space in the wilderness or in our backyard."

It's believed South Carolina has some 100,000 alligators. It's no wonder then with so many people moving in, especially in the Lowcountry, we're quickly becoming neighbors.

"We're fairly new to the neighborhood, so this is our first gator experience," said Katherine Vandergrift.

Vandergrift's Belle Hall home in Mount Pleasant backs up to a pond. Her husband saw an alligator while fishing one weekend and she quickly became concerned for her kids and dog.

"Just not sure what a gator would do," she said.

So, she called her home owners' association and they called Gator Getters.

"We do an assessment of the alligator," said Russell. "We come out and and see if it's been fed, if it's been played with by people fishing. If it doesn't pass all my tests we remove it immediately."

Russell uses a rod and reel for his gator tests, as well as objects he finds around the pond. He doesn't care to share his secrets, however, for fear others who have no idea what they're doing will try it.

But watching the gator's behavior, it appears to want nothing to do with Russell or the growing crowd. It cowers close to the bank, disappears under water and even tries to hide in the spray of a fountain.

Russell's assessment: the gator is good and should stay put. He's not a threat to people, only pets. There's even a sign posted warning no swimming, no pets.

But Vandergrift is not convinced.

"Well, I would like him to be a safe gator somewhere else," she said.

Russell can present his findings the neighborhood HOA. But he knows, if homeowners are still concerned, neighborhoods fear liability. The gator must go.

A crowd of kids and adults has gathered, each armed with an iPad or cellphone.

Modern day technology is about to greet a prehistoric creature.

Catching a gator isn't an easy task. Russell uses a special hook, casting his line just so, hoping to snag this five-footer in the tail or leg. He doesn't want a bloody show. The kids get closer, dozens now, as Russell reels the gator in.

It's rolling, hissing, fighting for its life. But once under control, Russell knows he has a captive audience.

"To have kids learn what I know about them and that I'm able to teach them what I know and they go away with a little better understanding," said Russell. "That's pretty cool."

Russell lets the kids touch the restrained gator while reminding them alligators are a part of our Lowcountry wildlife. He urges them to keep an eye on pets and to never ever feed, harass or try to catch an alligator. It's against the law.

The kids are impressed. One young man tells any who would listen: "If you ever have an alligator don't try to catch it yourself. Call this man."

But then there's the question Russell knows is coming as he loads the squirming gator into the truck.

"Will he be relocated in the wild," one mother asked.

"No," Russell said. "He won't be relocated into the wild."

"Most people think that I'm going to come in and remove the alligator and I'm going to move it off to a perfect little place where it's not around people," said Russell.

That's not the case unfortunately.

By law, if it's on private property, he's supposed to destroy the alligator. It will be harvested the meat used and the hide kept.

The suburban pond is gator free now, but Russell can't promise another won't move in.

The lesson is over. Both kids and parents have been left with a lot to think about. Russell has another gator to check out not too far away, but this is a much different gator tale.

"Yes, he chewed my son's lacrosse ball," said Joey Bushey. "Then proceeded to spit it out."

Bushey has had plenty of gator neighbors in their pond. That's why she has a fence. But this one's been different, and she's seen a lot of commotion around the pond.

"I was thinking maybe somebody had been feeding the alligator," she said.

Then one day her son's lacrosse ball rolled into the water, and they went to get it.

"It was coming toward us. It was coming toward people which I have always understood them to be afraid of people and it didn't exhibit any fears of what we were doing," Bushey said.

Russell quickly finds the gator and does his usual battery of tests. Sure enough, this little gator makes his way right to him, like a dog.

"If you have somebody feeding an alligator, if that alligator has been fed by people it has to be destroyed," said Russell. "Because now it looks at us for food."

So, a second gator is now in the back of Russell's truck. Just yards away, a sign clearly warns not to feed alligators. It adds, "A fed gator is a dead gator."

The sun begins to set and Russell prepares to drive away. Both gators are still alive, unlike the rather large alligator that was recently shot to death publicly, on Folly Beach.

People were outraged.

"What we've done in all the years we've been in business is we never use gun play anywhere," said Russell. "I always leave with an alligator alive in the back of my truck unless it's an extreme circumstance and even then we don't use guns."

He advises anyone looking for a gator consultant, whether they hire him or someone else, to do their research. The Department of Natural resources provides a list, but he says you hire at your own risk.

"Anybody can call up and get on that list. It doesn't matter what experience they have," said Russell. "Make sure you call somebody and get references."

As Russell prepares to drive away, a certain irony sets in.

If those little gators had been removed from public property instead of private, Russell would have had the option to move them elsewhere. Even the gator that's been fed may have learned to fear humans again once being captured.

Bigger, older gators however, are typically destroyed because they have keen homing skills and are likely to return to the same place.

Either way, spending time with Russell there's the sense he "gets" gators.

Ultimately, he wants to save them-- from the fears and fascination of people who could endanger their existence.

"They deserve to be in our world just like we do," he said.

Perhaps he's changing minds one person, one gator at a time.

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