Featured in Witness Magazine – Winter 2019
In which I go to the deep south to investigate alligator-hunting culture.
IF YOU DRIVE A HALF-HOUR south from Mobile, Alabama, you will find your-self on the shores of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The waters here aren’t clear at all but are perfectly dark and mysterious, the kind you can’t artificially saturate with a camera filter or lighten up by fiddling with the contrast. These waters are simply gray, murky gray, the perfect place for an animal to hide, the perfect place for a man with a boat to slice through the waters in the middle of the night with a flashlight, looking for the tell-tale amber-red glare of an alligator’s eyes, like a bicycle reflector.
On a July day every summer, when the humidity is already so thick you can wipe the air away with your hand, thousands of hopefuls sit at their computer screens and start hitting the refresh button over and over again at exactly 8 a.m., hoping this will be their year. They’ve partnered up with friends to increase their chances, hedged their bets by applying for various zones, and have probably been applying for years. Because they recently implemented a preference point system, the system will increase the likelihood of a repeat registrant being selected as long as the applicant continues to apply year after year. What no one will tell you is that it’s basically a lottery, although it’s not actually a lottery, because lotteries are technically illegal in Alabama (for religious reasons, of course). The state calls it a “random selection process” instead, which is really just a nice way of saying it’s a lottery. Everyone is in on the joke. On that July day, all fingers are poised on the keyboards, waiting for the page to update. When it finally does, players can begin the process of scrolling through the 125-200 names that have been selected, hoping to find their names on the list. If they do, they’re given one week to accept.
The state of Alabama decides exactly how many tags to allot on a year-to-year basis, depending on the estimated population of residents in the swamp at the time and how many gators can die without compromising the ecosystem. It only costs $22 to enter. Since most people work in groups to increase their chances, everyone will submit their names to all the zones in the hopes they’ll get a tag for one of them: Southwest zone, Southeast zone, West Central zone, and Lake Eufaula zone. Of course, hopeful winners can pay by credit card, but ballots are completely non-refundable. Each winner must be at least 16 years old, is allowed to harvest only one animal, and must attend the official one-day training camp here at Five Rivers in Spanish Fort prior to the actual event.
The dates are very specific. Each zone has its own unique window of time, and those who win a tag must adhere, under no uncertain terms, to the very narrow timeframe allotted them. There is no exception. The Southwest zone, for instance, begins at Official Sunset Time on the second Thursday in August until Official Sunrise Time on the second Sunday in August, and from Official Sunset Time on the third Thursday in August until Official Sunrise Time on the third Sunday in August. The hunt must be done in the dark, too—boats can only be out from Official Sunset to Official Sunrise, and the whole endeavor must succeed or fail before daybreak. The dates and times are chosen each year and strictly enforced by The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the same group who holds the random selection process every summer.
It’s a team effort from beginning to end.
Read the full story in Witness Magazine.