Article Thumbnail

Three Men Who Catch Wild-Ass Animals for a Living

You thought you were brave for trapping that spider under a glass, but what about trying to handle a cougar, a python, a bear or a gator?

Bored of your job? Looking for some excitement? Not particularly attached to any of your limbs and/or vital organs? Consider becoming a wild animal trapper! We spoke to three men whose work day involves capturing and safely removing a variety of downright frightening beasts. These are their, uh, tails (sorry). 

Curtis Robinson, Alligator Trapper, Morriston, Florida

I was born and raised here in Florida. I got out of the Army in 2006 for 90 days and noticed a job opening for alligator trapping. When I went back in the service, it never left my mind that there’s a job out there to catch alligators. I was medically retired in 2014, so I moved back down here, and lo and behold, I saw that they needed an alligator trapper in my county, so I applied. 

I’ve been an outdoorsman my whole life, gator hunting throughout the years when I could. Growing up, I remember being on the water — fishing, skiing and everything. There were alligators around, but having a fear of them wasn’t at the top of the list.

My first alligator call as a SNAP (Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program) agent was about a 4-foot alligator on a private property. But when I showed up, it turned out to be a stick. I had two eyewitnesses, though, that swore it was an alligator until I pulled it out of the water.

A couple calls later, I went to a state park. That alligator was real and like 7-foot-6-inches. It was a direct capture — I walked in the water with it, which isn’t advised. But the situation’s gonna dictate what you do, and I was in an area where casting wasn’t an option as there were too many overhanging trees. Basically, there was no other option than wading into the water about chest deep with a fishing pole. I was shaking like a dog shittin’ peach seeds, bro. Like I said, I’ve never had a fear of alligators, but I respect what that animal can do: I’m in its environment, and an alligator that’s half my weight can outmaneuver me, outswim me and out-power me in the water. So there’s a big respect toward that creature before I even go to put my hands on it.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re going to fight, but you do get the ones that don’t. You also get the ones that don’t fight until you put your hands on them. You’ve got to realize that a 10-foot alligator can run 36 mph; so If I’m going to corner it and I’m within 20 to 30 feet of this thing and it decides to take off, I’ve only got one choice, and that’s to jump, because they’re quick! But as soon as one rope is on it, it’s pretty much a wrap because the alligator is going to wear itself out. You’re not going to overpower it, you just want it to wear itself out while you watch it and relax.

Usually we snag it with a treble hook on a stout fishing pole with some heavy line. Us nuisance-alligator trappers are allowed to use a baited hook, hunters are not. I’ll transport that alligator back to a safe facility, and if I can’t find a home for it, well, it’ll go in somebody’s freezer. But I try to get most of my alligators — even the ones over 4 feet, which are supposed to be euthanized — a permit to relocate them either to a zoo or the Everglades. 

A lot of times I have an audience watching what I do. It’s quite weird; I’m kind of an introvert, so I don’t like to be around a lot of people. But many of my calls are in state parks or public swimming areas, and you have a hundred people watching you, so it’s like, “Okay, it’s game time. You can’t screw this up.” Every time there’s a crowd, people are taking videos on their phone, and as soon as the alligator gets captured, there’s loud cheering and clapping.

I’ve definitely had them bite me, but they’re small alligators, 3- or 4-footers. I had a 5-footer clamp down on my foot, but he didn’t pierce my shoe — it wasn’t more than dropping a 2-by-4 on your foot. I’ve got a buddy down the road, though, who’s been bitten about nine times; he’s missing like four fingers. But he admitted to me he was taking risks when he shouldn’t have been, jumping on an alligator before it was tired.

I read almost every alligator incident report that I can find. The biggest thing is that people don’t respect how smart they are. Anybody you talk to will tell you an alligator’s a dumb creature, all they do is eat, breed and sleep. But I’m here to tell you, until you’ve had an alligator twice your size stalk you… For example, I was on scene, doing my thing. I heard a loud splash and started peeking over my shoulder as I began walking around this lake. This alligator is staying 300 to 400 meters behind me, in cover, swimming along. When I stop, it stopped. When I’d move, it’d move. It was the eeriest feeling I’d ever had. 

Next, I went to my truck and got my fishing pole. I came back to the lake, and as soon as I got back to the water’s edge, that alligator was lying right where I was standing. They learn quick, and they’re only gonna give you one opportunity. If you snag it once and it gets off, I doubt you’re gonna get a second chance to get a snag hook in it.

That said, if an alligator has been fed, a lot of times I can just walk up to the water’s edge and start smacking my hand on the water and it will swim right up to me. I’m there 30 seconds, and I’m gone. Once an alligator’s been fed, it loses its fear of humans. And they’re lazy as hell! If you offer it food, buddy, it’s taking it.

However it goes down, though, I spent 58 months in combat, and this is my release. It gives me peace, as crazy as that sounds.

Mike Kimmel, Pythons (and Other Animals), Indiantown, Florida

When I was a kid, pythons definitely weren’t as much of a problem as they are now, being an invasive species and decimating native wildlife. But I’ve been catching animals my whole life. As a kid I used to catch native snakes and turn in them and other rescued animals. I used to breed and sell exotic reptiles — pythons, all kinds of lizards, poison dart frogs, chameleons. That’s how I’d make my allowance. Then I started my own trapping and wildlife rescue company. I was doing iguana removals at the time, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission mentioned the Python Pickup Program. They said I’d be great for it, and that I should apply.

I was confident in myself, but it was a lot harder than I thought — there was a big learning curve. I first started hunting pythons like it was a hog or a deer, or other kind of native snakes. But it was very different. I had to learn to hunt like a Burmese python. I’m used to going out in the woods and hunting animals down on foot, but with pythons, you cruise the levees in the truck all night. I drive the levees from sunset to sunrise and have my eye to the ground the whole time. It’s very draining, very tiring. It gets boring sometimes, too.

When I see one, I’ll get out of the truck and slowly approach it. I don’t want to spook it — they think they’re camouflaged, so I’ll creep up on it, usually to grab the tail and pull it out to an open area where I can work with it. They usually try to double back on me, so I’m dodging strikes, dancing around it, tiring it out for my perfect chance to quickly swoop in and grab it right behind its head where it can’t turn around and bite. I’m trying to keep it from wrapping up on me. All the while, it’s spraying poop and musk everywhere, which looks like macaroni and cheese. 

After I tire it out — I’m tired myself, usually — I put it in a bag, then in a secure container that’s built into the bed of my truck. I go out for three to five days at a time, so I keep them alive while I’m out there. But the last day before I leave the swamp, I’ll euthanize them all, take them to the field station and turn them in, where they measure, weigh and sex them.

After that, I take them home and skin them. Next, I process them, making use of the meat, turning the bodies into taxidermy displays, educational displays or keychains and stuff like that. I’ll have the skin turned into different leather products; I even have the fat made into soap, so nothing goes to waste. To be honest, everything that comes from it is amazing: The leather products are absolutely beautiful and last forever. The meat isn’t the greatest, but if I can’t sell it, I’ll feed it to my hogs. I have a bunch of feral hogs that I catch, so I’ll fatten them up and then sell them. 

Python meat isn’t bad tasting, but it’s very chewy. I’d imagine if you slow cooked it or made a stew, it’d be a lot better. The soap is unbelievable: I’ve had homemade bear soap, pig soap, everything you can imagine, and it doesn’t compare.

During the best times of year, like right now, I’ve had weeks where I pull out over 30 snakes and nights where I catch 10, but it’s always really different. They’re by far the most unpredictable thing I hunt. Every time I think I’ve got my brain wrapped around them, they always throw me a curveball. 

Danger is always something I deal with in my line of work. I was out filming with somebody and captured a 15- to 16-foot python. I’m very careful when I’m by myself, but I had someone out there taking photos of me, so I held it up, and it wrapped around me. If I was by myself, there was no way I was getting that snake off me — not a chance. It was wrapped around my arms and had me pinned; not to mention, it was wrapped around my gun. It could have been a very close call.

Pythons are a little bit venomous on their back fangs. It irritates you a little bit — when I’ve been bitten, it swelled up like a purple grapefruit. But they’re not venomous in the sense that it’s gonna kill you.

The best part about hunting pythons is seeing the results. These last two years, I’ve really seen an increase in wildlife. When I first started, we didn’t see anything. No raccoons, possums or rabbits. It’s awesome to see our results. And just being out there: The swamps — and especially the Everglades — are such special places, like no other. It gives me a real sense of pride, too, that we’re out there helping. It’s very rewarding.

Pythons are impressive in how tough they are and how much of a survivor they are. I’ve seen everything Florida has to offer, and pythons blow my mind every frickin’ time. I’ve actually run one over in my truck: I drive a big ol’ F250 with a big, custom service bed on the back. It’s heavy as shit, and I ran it over. By the time I realized what I’d done, I reversed back over it, and the snake didn’t have a scratch on it. I actually had to wrestle it out of my wheel well; it was unfazed. They’re solid muscle, and they can adapt to anything. Honestly, these snakes could go six months without a meal; they’re just very good at taking over and surviving. 

I’ve picked up snakes you’d swear are a pet and put them in the back of the truck no problem, and I’ve picked up snakes where it’s a 30-minute ordeal — I’m wrestling it, and it will not quit. It’s piiiissed off. Some of them have a lot more of an attitude. On hot summer nights when it’s 80 degrees and super humid, man, I catch a 12-footer and we’re fighting for 20 to 30 minutes. I’m slap wore out and soaking wet afterwards, for sure.

Rich Beausoleil, Cougars and Bears, Wenatchee, Washington

I’m the bear and cougar specialist for Washington’s State Department of Fish and Wildlife. I get to spend plenty of time in the field, and most of my work is based on research, capture, collaring, population estimation, those kinds of things.

What we do, even with cougars, isn’t dangerous at all. I’ve captured over 300 cougars and never had an issue. They’re big babies, to be honest with you. Sometimes we need to go in and recollar them; they’ll just hide, and you can get up pretty close on them. Sometimes we’ll quickly count the kittens in a den, even. The mother’s not sitting there snarling at us.

We use dogs to tree them and capture them for tagging purposes. That’s a cougar’s evolutionary adaptation from growing up with wolves: You get chased by a pack of wolves, you go up in a tree. They have this innate fear of dogs, too. Of course, if a single wolf took them on, or if a dog chased them and there were no trees, it’s going to defend itself, but that’s not going to happen to us. They always give way to us.

Now, you do a lot of work before you turn the dogs loose because you don’t want them running five miles. You do your best to get a circle around the cougar, then you release the dogs. They’re high energy at that point, so they’re the aggressor. We get the cougar in the tree, and we set up a big, circular net that ties onto the trunk. If the cougar hasn’t jumped by then, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll stay put, so we launch a dart.

I’d say probably 25 percent fall because they start to go to sleep. But 75 percent, we set up the net for just-in-case purposes. It’s my job to go up the tree and secure a rope to the animal, work with people on the ground and lower down the cougar safely. (We take our work super-seriously, and make sure it’s safe for the animal.) When you’re up in the tree with a 140-pound cat, you’re pretty sure it’s immobilized, but sometimes they wake up a little bit. They’re groggy, however, so they’re not swiping at you by any means.

People talk about Africa and the big five, like lions and leopards. But the leopard has nothing on the cougar! The cougar kills prey three times the size of a leopard’s prey, and it actively and highly defends a home range 10 times the size of a leopard. So they’re extremely impressive.