MAXWELL:  The monster isn’t always the monster

10/8/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


This column is about the meaning of the death of the longest alligator recorded anywhere. The gator’s death reminds me of a 1963 John McPhee essay about travel and nature. In the essay, the author speculates about the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

Concealing the theme, McPhee weaves personal narrative and informative reporting to demonstrate that the real monster is the creature hunting the Loch Ness Monster: humankind. He describes the monstrous behavior of people like those in the narrative who have come to Scotland to see the monster.

Combined with current action are flashbacks that show how carnival owners imprison a young black bear in a cage and drive him crazy, and how a man kills a harmless, non-poisonous snake with a shovel just because it is a snake.

McPhee suggests, of course, that a similar fate awaits the lake’s mythic creature, a sentiment voiced by one of the officials living near the loch: “With enough time, we could shoot the beast with a crossbow and a line, and get a bit of skin.”

Observing an image of the monster embroidered on the man’s necktie, McPhee says: “As I studied it there, framed on (the man’s) chest, the thought occurred to me that there was something inconvenient about the monster’s actual appearance. In every sense except possibly the sense that involves cruelty, the creature in Loch Ness is indeed a monster. . . . Its general appearance is repulsive, in the instant and radical sense in which reptiles are repulsive to many human beings.”

Now, back to central Florida waters and our 14-foot, 800-pound gator _ a monster in every sense of the term.

In a four-hour struggle, it was killed in Lake Monroe near Sanford. Its spinal cord was severed by hunters Barry Lardner, 34, and Mike Taylor, 37, shown in a photograph lying beside the dead, magnificent beast.

Why did they kill this animal, which, by many estimates, was more than 60 years old? Sure, the most direct reason is that area residents were afraid and that it felt at home in a boat basin.

The greater reason, however, is that, as with our images of the Loch Ness Monster, our perceptions of gators force us to confront many of our primal fears. Most of us, for example, fear and loathe reptiles, especially big ones. In some of our worst nightmares, we see ourselves suffocating or drowning or being devoured by a reptile emerging suddenly from deep, dark waters.

Moreover, we imagine the savagery of the gator as it kills and eats its prey. Listen to James Kevin Morrow, 35, who was snorkeling last weekend in Juniper Springs, who looked up and saw an 11-foot gator moving in front of him. The reptile chomped down on Morrow.

Estimating that the gator held him beneath the water for 30 seconds, Morrow said: “I saw the head coming toward me, then I saw its mouth open. Next thing I knew, my head was inside the gator’s mouth. He started shaking me like a rag doll. He just kept shaking me from side to side, shaking and shaking.”

Some of my faith in humankind returned after several readers wrote to the Times expressing anger that we featured a front-page photo of the Lake Monroe gator and its killers and that wildlife officials did not spare the animal’s life.

John V. Calhoun of Palm Harbor commented that he was reminded of “old photographs from the turn of the century depicting “great white hunters’ in Africa kneeling over their trophy lions and elephants.”

Eva DeHart of Palm Harbor lamented: “What was (the gator’s) crime? That he grew too long?”

Seminole resident Moira Dean asked: “How about some compassion? It could have been transported somewhere safe to live out its life.”

This gator story and the letters about it remind me of an incident a few years ago on State Road A1A near Callahan involving another reptile. The van driving toward me suddenly did a U-turn, went off the road, then went back and forth on the embankment, turned around and went back and forth again.

The cause? The driver had risked his life and mine to kill a defenseless rattlesnake in the wild. I saw the snake’s thick body, its colorful, shiny skin writhing in the grass. Why did the driver feel compelled to kill? For the same reason, a combination of the tangible and the symbolic, that Lardner and Taylor killed the Lake Monroe gator: dominion over all things wild, a repulsion of reptiles and an irrational fear of the unknown.

By the way, the gator meat has become restaurant fare, the hide a trophy. And the real monster? McPhee’s answer would be unequivocal.