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John Gillis: Gator-getter
Thomson man's job is removing nuisance alligators

John Gillis is a problem-solver. He solves big, toothy problems of the reptilian sort that sometimes snatch pets or livestock before disappearing under murky water for long periods of time.

But even Gillis, of Thomson, will admit the majority of the alligators he captures and removes from private property from Richmond to Screven county for the Department of Natural Resources are seldom the monsters they are painted to be.

"A lot of times, when he gets called about a nuisance gator, it isn't that it has done anything," Gillis' wife, Denise, said. "Sometimes it's just an alligator being an alligator. They aren't evil."

Still, no one can blame a property owner for not wanting an ambush predator like the American alligator that can grow in excess of 13 feet long and weigh upward of 800 pounds around, especially when it can appear and disappear completely, silently at the water's edge.

That's why this past May, Gillis was hired to take over as the region's agent trapper for nuisance alligators.

Since then, he has caught and dispatched 17 and relocated several smaller, less-threatening gators to friendlier waters.

Originally from south Georgia, Gillis first started hunting alligators with his brother, a DNR agent who kind of fell into the position of nuisance alligator-removal in the Vidalia area.

When Georgia opened its season on alligator hunting, he began applying for tags, which are drawn raffle-style.

Statewide there are about 4,000 people who request alligator tags each year. Around 850 are given out. One DNR official said requests went up significantly this year, possibly because of the success of reality television shows such as Swamp People.

Acting Regional Supervisor for Game Management I.B. Parnell said the last success rate he saw reported for these hunters was around 30 percent to 40 percent.

Hunters normally take about three years to draw out a tag, Gillis said. Although he has known some who get a tag the first year they apply, he feels that is rare.

Hunters who do not get chosen get a priority point each year they fail to draw a tag.

These points can be used to improve their chances in subsequent years.

Gillis had a number of successful hunts before landing the job, which pays only in allowing the trapper to keep the skins and meat of the animals.

In the late 1980s alligator skins went for as much as $80 a foot Gillis said, but since then the prices have dropped pretty far. Today a skin goes for more like $10 a foot.

"You don't do this for the money," Gillis said. "Not really. To sell the meat you have to have a seafood license and have a way to preserve the meat."

Under the law, alligator hunters in Georgia lucky enough to get awarded tags have a bag limit of just one per season.

The former trapper was based out of Dublin, so Gillis is better located to handle many of the calls in the district, which covers most of the Region 9 alligator hunting region. His counties are McDuffie, Warren, Jefferson, Glascock, Columbia, Burke, Richmond, Jenkins and Screven.

Parnell said the district probably gets around 50 nuisance alligator calls a year, but coastal Georgia probably gets more like 200.

He guesses something like 20 a year qualify for actual removals.

"I can tell you, it's a lot easier for me to justify sending him out," Parnell said. "When you send a man from Dublin to Augusta to catch a 5-foot gator he's losing money hand over fist...And John was by far our most qualified candidate. I feel good having such a competent individual so close by that enjoys the work and seems to deal so well with the public."

Gillis was the one called out when a large alligator delayed the Augusta speed boat races on the Savannah River about a month ago. That one had been run off by the time he got there.

Some of the biggest alligators he has caught this year have been from fishing ponds open to the public bordering Phinizy Swamp. He captured several there that were more than 10-feet long.

"By the time they get this big, they don't have any natural predators," Gillis said. "So they can get pretty confident."

These big confident gators that float up out of the water near boaters and are not perturbed by human presence are the ones he gets calls about.

While in the Augusta pond mentioned above, he was looking one direction when Denise saw a huge 10-plus-footer silently rise up and float just to the side of their boat.

"She came out with the line from Jaws, 'We're gonna need a bigger boat,'" Gillis said and laughed. "By the time I turned around it had disappeared."

Gillis attempts to catch all of his alligators live. Then he transports them back home where he dispatches them, or puts the smaller, less aggressive gators aside for relocation.

"I think they get a bad rap," Denise said. "Most of the time when there is a problem alligator, it's partly humans' fault. They've been feeding them or moving into their environment. I think most people are pretty ignorant about them."

But then there are gators like the one he was called out to deal with in Jenkins County last month.

"A guy who has about 50 cows noticed that a couple of calves were missing," Gillis said. "He assumed that they had been lost to coyotes or something. But when his Labrador, a big family pet, turned up missing he started looking around the farm. He found part of the dog floating in a pond where his cattle drank.

"There were all these bones on the bottom of the pond...This farmer has small children so he told everyone to stay away from the pond."

The rancher called DNR despite the fact that no one had officially seen an alligator there.

"As soon as I got there we saw a bubble trail," Gillis said. "And after a couple of minutes it came on up. It was a big one that had just gotten used to animals coming down to drink there at the edge of the pond. It wasn't scared of me at all. An alligator like that doesn't distinguish between a calf and a dog and a child."

It was 9-feet, 4-inches and weighed 272 pounds.

After taking it in and cleaning it, Gillis found evidence of the animals along with some cattle egret in the animal's stomach. He also found broken glass where it appears the gator had eaten a bottle or two.

In another gator he found a large rock the size of a softball. One of the strangest things he has heard found inside a large alligator was the brass ball off of the top of a flagpole.

One lady in Jenkins County filled in her swimming pool with sand because alligators kept crossing a 300-acre peanut field to get to her backyard.

Gillis said he has taken some from community ponds in Richmond County and has dealt with one other animal that took several pets.

The ones that have been fed by humans and therefore have no fear of them, are actually some of the easiest to catch, he said.

"A fed alligator is a dead alligator," Denise added.

Parnell said he doesn't see many cases that are like the call where the gator had eaten several animals on the farmer's property.

"Most calls come from someone who sees an alligator in their pond and they just don't want him there," Parnell said. "Maybe they have cows or dogs or geese or children or whatever who use the pond, and they just don't want the alligator there."

Reporting process

"A landowner contacts the region (DNR) office to report that he has a problem alligator that he would like to have removed," Parnell said. "We talk about it and I question them about how big it is. Then, nine times out of 10, we send an agent out to confirm that they do have an alligator of that size. I can tell you, not all 5-foot gators are created equal. Some people think they have a monster, and it turns out to be a 4-footer."

Gillis gets sent out on an official call only if the reptile is over 4-feet long.

"What most people don't realize is that alligators below 4 feet, really up to 6 feet, are not usually any kind of threat to people," Parnell said. "A 4-foot gator is going to eat tadpoles, frogs, lizards, snakes and whatever dead things they can find floating in the water. Their mouths aren't made to bite off and chew food. Whatever they eat they have to eat whole."

And that's nothing much bigger than a fist, he said.

That's why DNR doesn't consider anything less than 4 feet to be a nuisance that requires a trapper to remove and dispatch it.

"If the property owner doesn't want it in their pond, and it's that small, then we suggest they hire a nuisance wildlife professional to remove it," Parnell said. "Our trapper could remove it, but it isn't really worth his time for what he'll make off of it."

If the property owner wants to pay him to remove the animal, they can.

"When they get up to 5 to 7 feet they may be able to handle wading birds like herons," Parnell said. "Once they get some size to them they may be able to grab something bigger that's dead and rotten and spin so that they can tear off pieces they can swallow. But until they get pretty big they have to wait on them to rot.

"But it really has to be a good sized alligator before it can take something the size of a beaver or a wild goose," Parnell said. "They just aren't the evil critter they're made out to be. They really do a great job of cleaning up your pond."

If the reptile is determined to be more than 4 feet long and a sufficient nuisance, then DNR contacts a trapper such as Gillis, who makes arrangements with the property owner to get access to the area where the animal is likely to be. The DNR office issues a unique tag for the animal. Once it is trapped and killed, free of charge to the landowner, the tag is attached to its tail, the appropriate paperwork is turned in and a new tag replaces that one that indicates the hide and meat were legally taken.

The hunt

Gillis recommends that people interested in hunting alligators in Georgia do the appropriate research.

"You need to read up on it, find out all you can," Gillis said. "Don't think it's just like Swamp People."

Georgia DNR does offer a class that provides some safety training and introduces first-time tag recipients to the approved methods, legal aspects of the hunt, how to locate the animal and how to judge its size from a distance. Parnell said the distance from the nostril to the eye, as measured in inches, roughly correlates to the animal's entire length in feet.

"You can't just go out with a high powered rifle and start shooting at them," Gillis said. "The law says hunters must have a line on it first."

Some hunters use bows, crossbows or harpoons to attach their lines. Others use treble hooks and high-test line on heavy-duty fishing poles. Georgia law also requires that hunters dispatch the animal with a gun or bang stick on site.

"Know the techniques or go with someone who does," Gillis recommended. "It can be dangerous."

Just a few weeks ago he tied a big gator off to a cleat on the front of his boat.

"He drug us all over the pond, jerking the front end of the boat every which way," Gillis said. "At one point, when he started rolling, I thought he might flip himself up in the boat with us."

Gillis prefers a hand-tossed treble hook and strong cord or rope. He has a variety of hooks, the largest of which is about the size of a baseball.

"Everybody has their own idea about what's the best way to catch them," Gillis said.

Once snagged, he works the animal until it gets tired and then he ties it up, tapes the mouth closed with black electrician's tape and loads it in the boat.

"Being reptiles, they're built for a big burst of speed, one good surge," Gillis said. "But they tire quickly."

Once he gets them to land he wraps them in a wet towel and ices them down good so they are more lethargic for the ride home. They are not dispatched until he gets them to his cleaning station.

"And once you've snagged one, shot it and gotten it in the boat, never assume that it's dead, just because it has been still for a long time."

He told a story of a friend who was cleaning a dead gator that had already been skinned.

"It was laying there just bone and muscle when it's jaw spasmed and it locked down on his hand," Gillis said. "They had to pry it loose."

Once a hunter's application is chosen, they still have to purchase a state alligator hunting license. They are often contacted by companies selling specialized equipment, offering carcass processing or guide services.

As a state sponsored trapper, Gillis is allowed some methods regular hunters are not. His personal hunting kit includes equipment designed especially for alligators in addition to lines normally used for deep-sea fishing, hand-made poles with harpoon tips, bouys with bite marks in them from past encounters, beaver and black bear snares.

Unlike the average hunter, Gillis can set out baited traps for problem gators that are wary of people.

"You can tell when people have really been messing with one," Gillis said. "They'll shoot at 'em or throw rocks. It scares them off and they won't come anywhere near me."

There are ways to set hooks and lines that smaller alligators are not able to get to.

"But they'll come to anything that you set out and let it get nasty," he said. "The nastier and smellier the better. I've used beef hearts and livers, old stinky chickens. I even used some elk once. That might be the first time an alligator in Georgia has ever eaten elk."

These days, Denise goes with him on nearly every call.

"We've been together so long, I know what he needs and help him with the equipment," she said.

"She's my eyes and ears," he said. "I'm color blind and so when we are out looking for them at night she can tell me if those lights shining back are red or green."

Alligator eyes shine red in spotlights, he said.

"At first I really didn't want him to be out there by himself," she said. "I mean, if he was going out there, I didn't want to be home worrying about him, not knowing if he was all right."

"And we live and work together," he said. At their day job, the couple manage Sweetwater Plantation Farms LLC just south of Thomson. "We're together all the time. And it's good to have an extra set of eyes and ears out there with you, an extra set of hands to hold a light."

Web posted on Thursday, September 15, 2011

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