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Friday, February 28, 2014

Respect, Mystery and Ancient Reptiles

By Linda Lovely

Growing up in Iowa, I became personally acquainted with my fair share of barnyard animals—cows, pigs, horses, goats, and chickens. My sister and I also fussed over an assortment of household pets—goldfish, parakeets, and dogs. On circus and zoo visits, we oohed and ahhed over the jungle’s more exotic inhabitants from elephants and monkeys to lions and hippos.   

Yet none of these inter-species encounters prepared me for cohabitation with the wet and wild creatures we met during the dozen years we lived on barrier islands in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

On Fripp Island, a feisty ten-foot mama alligator, our closest neighbor, frequented the drainage canal that ran about 25 feet from our house. The reptile considered this shallow stretch her personal nursery, and we met her newborns each spring. En route to our mailbox, I once counted 18 vocal babies crawling on her back. These youngsters chirped like baby birds, and their bright green, almost neon, coloring wasn’t exactly camouflage. Guess if your mama has 80 razor sharp teeth and jaws that could snap a Suma wrestler’s neck in two, you don’t worry about calling attention to your living sundeck.

This gator did change our lawn-mowing practices. My husband always kept the blades between his size 13 shoes and the drainage canal. If mama crawled up on the bank and started doing push-ups—that’s exactly what they looked like—he did not interpret her open yap as a grin. That’s when Tom decided it was Miller time and headed inside.

We saw gators most days. Our house was on the golf course and the gators appeared to have their own favorite holes. Our golf foursome adopted home rules for lost balls whenever errant shots landed near gators—even if they appeared to be mid-snooze.

I’m told large gators—those in the say the 12-foot and up range—can only run 11 miles per hour, and they can’t keep up that pace for any distance. I’m also told humans aren’t a preferred food source. These ancient reptiles prefer bite-size meals.

Yet observation encouraged me to respect these creatures and give them a wide berth. I’ve seen them spring from the water in a blur of fury to capture a wading heron. And, even though the creatures might prefer multiple small snacks to a giant meal, I’ve seen a gator push a full-grown deer down a waterway. En route to a dinner party? Not an answer I’m keen to know.       

With regularity, we saw tourists (residents called this particular human subspecies “tourons”) feed marshmallows to gators and poke and tease them with sticks. Once I even watched a golfer smack an alligator on the snout to get him to move away from a golf ball. I’m still surprised the alligator didn’t attack. Maybe he was allergic to dumbbells.

Now that we live in Upstate South Carolina, I like being able to dive off my dock without first scanning the surface of our lake for floating “sticks” that might turn out to be alligators.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I shared their territory for a time. To me, alligators will always remain mysterious, alien creatures that inspire awe and fear that my characters can experience in a variety of situations—even with no reptiles in sight. Alligators also are certain to have at least walk-on parts in any novel I set in the Lowcountry. (They earned more than a walk-on in DEAR KILLER, my first Marley Clark Mystery.) 

So what animals do you find mysterious? Do you use the emotions that creature encounters evoke to color your human characters’ reactions? 

5 comments:

Judith Ashley said...

Hi Linda,

Interesting post! I've never had an up-close and personal encounter with an alligator and I'm fine with that. Really don't feel I've missed anything - although you do point out some habits I'd not been aware of.

Love the "tourons" reference - people really do come up with strange ideas at times.

I think of animals that are secretive as mysterious - fox comes to mind.

Sarah Raplee said...

I find many animals mysterious and intriguing. I do dredge up the emotions of wonder, terror, etc. I've felt when encountering the wild and unexpected to help me evoke those emotions in my characters and readers.

After seeing a seemingly slow, cumbersome (and huge!) crocodile whirl to try to snap at a keeper pushing on his tail with a broom, I've learned to be very cautious around large predators, docile-looking or not!

Linda Lovely said...

I'm with you, Sarah, cautious. I've heard that wild pigs are becoming a problem in neighborhoods that are not that far away from me. Yikes. I respect these creatures.

Pippa Jay said...

I can never understand people who don't treat such critters with the respect they deserve. We don't have anything that dangerous or deadly over here in the UK (although a woman was mauled by a deer last year, which nearly killed her). We do have one poisonous snake - the adder - and while it's rarely deadly, I wouldn't go poking one. Even though I have got close enough to take photos.

Pippa Jay said...

Oh, and I just wrote a paranormal set in Louisiana, and my undead hero gets dragged off by a gator. That was interesting research!