Gator lady to the rescue

TAMPA — The 8-foot alligator opens its jaws wide and hisses in the dark at Julie Harter, who takes a few steps closer and dangles a lasso just like the kind rodeo cowboys use.

Cornered against a chain-link fence in a suburban garbage truck parking lot, the beast issues a guttural growl, warning the lady with the rope — the only woman out of 40 or so trappers licensed by the state — to keep her distance.

With her auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail and a gold alligator pendant dangling from a chain around her neck, Harter comes off as kind of a cross between Reba McEntire and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Southern-sweet but sturdy and tough as gator hide.

The 47-year-old grandmother is used to snide, under-the-breath comments from good ol’ boys and doubters when she gets out of the truck. They shut up when she hops on a big gator’s back, grabs the snout and wraps it tight with black electrician’s tape.

The gator in front of her at this moment is going to be a little tricky. The corner is dark and littered with junk, and she can’t get close enough to use her usual tool: a catch pole with a retractable wire loop on the end. So out comes the lasso.

On the third toss, Harter rings the gator’s head, yanks the rope tight around its neck and drags the thrashing creature to the middle of the paved lot. The garbage-truck guys who’ve been watching scatter like little kids on the playground.

It’s 9 p.m., the tail end of a day that Harter started 14 hours earlier at her other job, working with special education students at a central Florida high school.

“A girl’s work is never done,” she says, climbing into her big black Ford truck with the “Lady Gator Trapper” license plate.

About 1.3 million wild alligators live among 18 million people in the Sunshine State. With drought and development shrinking their habitat, the large reptiles inevitably wander into back yards, highways, swimming pools and parking lots.

Nuisance trappers working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission captured nearly 10,000 alligators last year, slaughtering most of them. Harter and a helper took 346 of them from her territory around Tampa.

The state doesn’t pay trappers, but they get to keep the alligators, which are a protected species. There is a market for the meat, but the real money is in the hides, which can bring $40 a foot. Some years, catching gators is more profitable for Harter than her teaching job.