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'97 is already a mean season for wildlife

May 25, 1997

A few days ago, a man in Key Largo took half a raw chicken and stuck it on a big triple-barbed hook. The hook was attached to a heavy nylon rope, which was reinforced with a steel cable leader.

The man lobbed the hooked chicken into a canal and began to wait. This is exactly how a poacher would do it—"a classic set-hook for crocodilians," said reptile expert Todd Hardwick, who later was called to the scene.

Before long, something swam along and ate the man's bait. It was a male North American crocodile measuring 9 feet, 10 inches and weighing about 350 pounds.

The animal was one of a pair that lived in the waterway, not far from the John Pennekamp state park. This species has been fighting back from the edge of extinction, and South Florida is the only place in the world where it lives.

More timid than alligators, these crocs are not known to attack humans. The big one that swallowed the baited chicken had long ago been tagged by a biologist named Paul Moler, who works for the state. Moler has spent years trying to save Florida's crocodiles.

This one was No. 050358. Moler had marked it after it emerged from the nest on Aug. 9, 1982, at the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Key Largo.

Its life ended only a few miles away, under a dock, where it thrashed to death on the end of a rope. Its insides were torn to shreds.

Somebody in the neighborhood spotted the carcass and called authorities, because killing crocodiles is highly illegal. Nobody has been arrested yet.

A man interviewed by wildlife officers said he was innocently fishing when the croc grabbed his bait. Wow! Fishing with a chicken on a steel cable—they must grow some damn big snappers in that canal.

It continues to be a brutal season for Florida wildlife, with jerks running amok. In March, a 10-ton Minke whale died near Big Pine Key after being shot five times by unknown persons.

Who knows why anyone would take target practice on such a harmless and elegant creature, but you can bet on a pathetic combination of boredom and stupidity. Bullets from two separate guns were removed from the dead whale.

Then, from the purely vicious to the purely greedy:

Five young sports from Hialeah were arrested two weeks ago in Biscayne National Park. They carried no fishing licenses, but had a boatload of illegal booty, including undersize and out-of-season lobster, 458 queen conchs and the remains of a rare loggerhead turtle.

The goons who butchered the turtle could get 12 to 18 months in a federal prison. A park ranger found the animal's flippers while searching the boat.

Days later, several men were busted for illegal spearfishing around Dinner Key and Government Cut.You know you've found paradise when you can poach lobsters within wading distance of the Miami skyline.

Some judges go easy on wildlife violators, and others are as tough as the law allows. Unfortunately, the maximum fines are too low and the maximum jail sentences are too light for the crime, which is nothing short of robbery.

A few neighbors on that canal in Key Largo said they were glad the croc was gone. They said they feel safer now.

That's almost understandable—it was a large, scary-looking critter. The fact it hadn't hurt anyone didn't matter. Fear is fear.

Still, some folks would like their kids one day to see a loggerhead turtle in the Atlantic, or even a wild crocodile in Florida Bay.

That No. 050358 held on for almost 15 years is a small miracle of nature, considering all the numbskulls and bandits it had to elude.


Wildlife losing their homes as we build ours December 12, 1996 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Turtles slaying shows we need more Cousteaus June 29, 1997







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