The Observer has a hate/hate relationship with most reptiles. We say "most," because we've got no problem with turtles — other than the snapping kind, of course; those denizens of the muddy deep that our dear ol' Granny told us wouldn't let go until they hear a clap of thunder once they got aholt of ya. We've also got no problem with a lizard or three, though Komodo Dragons and Gila Monsters and even a good sized iguana are enough to set off the gibbering Monkey Cortex of our brain and send us scrambling for a sharp stick to protect the young. Snakes, however, are out as a class. Yes, even rat snakes and king snakes and all the other rodent-hungry species. Your ol' pal feels about those wriggling friends of the farmer the same way we feel about waste treatment plants and international diplomats: as long as they can do their job without us ever having to see, hear or know anything about it, we're cool.
Which brings us to the species of reptile we're most torn about: The crocodilians, specifically the alligator. The Observer and our lovely bride have a strange fascination with gators. We make a yearly pilgrimage to the Arkansas Alligator Farm down in Hot Springs — sometimes even twice a year, so we can see them once while they're sunbathing outdoors, and another time while they're dozing in their enclosed winter barn, the only thing separating our footsies from their snouts being chicken wire of questionable tensile strength. Spouse's willingness to go anywhere near that joint is doubly odd, given that while she was pregnant during our grad-school sojourn in Lafayette, La., over a decade ago, she had recurring nightmares that a gang of surly alligators was going to climb the stairs to our second floor apartment, pick the lock, then snatch our cub from his crib for a snack. True story.
All this is to say that we were alarmed last week when we heard a good-sized alligator on display at the Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center (formerly the Governor Mike Huckabee Who is the Best Guy in the World Because He Signs Our Paychecks Delta Rivers Nature Center) in Pine Bluff had absconded from his enclosure and is still on the lam. We called up Eric Maynard, the facility director, and got a description of the fugitive.
The gone gator is nine feet long, and weighs between 250 and 300 pounds. Maynard called that "medium sized" for these parts, where rare examples on the Arkansas River near the Pine Bluff Arsenal top 16 feet. He said the beast in question was captured while crossing a road in Jefferson County, and put on display for the warm blooded bipeds about a year ago.
Given that we believe it's only a matter of time before the reptiles rise up and retake their proper place at the top of the food chain, Maynard's description of how said beast got out of its enclosure — surrounded by a four-foot chain link fence — is enough to make us want to start stockpiling toilet paper and snakebite kits:
"It was apparently crawling up on the fence and put enough pressure on there that it broke some of the wires and broke the top part down," Maynard said. That allowed the alligator access to a second enclosure surrounded by a six-foot fence, the bottom of which was buried in the ground. "It went around, it looked like, and tested lots of different areas. All of it is buried in the ground, except where the gate is." At that point, the alligator pushed on the fence at the weak spot he'd discovered until it broke, allowing him to escape.
Let us just repeat that: An alligator, with a tiny, prehistoric brain and a whole mess of big teeth, went around until it found a weak spot in the fence, then exploited that weak spot to escape. Take a second to glance around and make sure it isn't behind you if you want. Maynard insists that the Great Escape doesn't mean the creature gave it a lot of conscious thought. Suddenly, however, Spouse's worries about gators wandering around apartment complexes jiggling doorknobs don't look so far-fetched.
Maynard says the alligator is still on the run, and there's some debate over whether they'll catch him even if they find him. The bayous and rivers close to the nature center are already home to alligators, so it's not like he'll be lonely. If they spot him on land, maybe they'll try to retake him. In the water, though, it's a no-go.
"They show that stuff on TV, but let's be real," he said. "We're not going to do our Steve Irwin impression."