In December 2010, a young adventurer named Hendri Coetzee took two National Geographic explorers on an expedition on a remote section of the Congo Basin called the Lukaga River. The South African man, 35 years old, was world-renowned for his bravery and expertise in the dark and dangerous countries of Africa, which is why Coetzee was selected to lead the two men on the Lukaga. The afternoon of December 7th, as the two men paddled, Coetzee ahead, they watched in shock as a giant crocodile surfaced out of nowhere, snatched Coetzee from his kayak, and pulled him underwater.
It happened so fast the two men barely had time to process what had happened. Coetzee was there, paddling, and then there was a splash, the kayak upside down, and ripples in the river.
Coetzee was never seen again.
This story rocked the world, well, those who happened to catch these headlines buried amid the ongoing political muckraking and stupid celebrity “news.” Coetzee’s famous advice to the duo from National Geographic about taking such a perilous trek down the Lukaga was “no matter what happens, don’t panic.” Excellent advice, and I have deferred to it often.
Last week, down here in the Everglades, a 63-year-old airboat captain was thrilling a boat of tourists by luring a 9-foot alligator to the side of the airboat when, in a split second, the gator snapped at his hand, still dangling in the water, and sliced it off entirely. The captain drove himself back to the dock, as panicked tourists called 911. He was rushed to the hospital, and guys from the Fish and Wildlife Commission arrived on the scene, killed the gator, cut the man’s hand from its belly, and trucked it to the hospital in case doctors could reattach it. They could not. The captain was feeding the gator, of course, to get it to come so close, so now the airboat companies in our little section of the western glades are waiting for the inevitable FWC crackdown. The incident, which–considering the number of airboat rides given in the Everglades on a daily basis–was freakish and unlikely, has been the talk of the town ever since it happened.
When I came back from my tour the day after the captain lost his hand and reported the news to Cristina, she shrugged. “Well,” she said, matter-of-factly, “they’re not pets.”
I see it all the time, people wanting to get close to wild animals. I want that. I like being near wildlife, and I harbor my fair share of Dr. Doolittle fantasies and Disney-rooted delusions about relationships between man and beast. In “The Jungle Book,” it never crosses Baloo’s mind to turn around one day and eviscerate Mowgli. Although it probably should.
Two days after the hand incident, I was standing by the chain link fence that separates Corey Bille’s gift shop from the back lake. A 7 foot male alligator has taken up residence there now that mating season is over and the lovers have all disappeared. On this day, the gator was all the way up to the fence, the tip of his snout resting on the wire. I stood by the fence, admiring him as I usually do, when a bald man with a goatee, probably 40, covered in tattoos, walks up to the fence and holds the back of his hand to the gator’s snout, the way you do to a dog that doesn’t know you. It would have taken that gator one second to have that man’s fingers in his mouth, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why someone would take such a foolish action. Don’t panic, I told myself.
There are two people who struggle in me. The one who told me to let that idiot get his finger bit off to teach him a lesson about common sense, and the one who told me to educate him. The educator won.
“You don’t want to do that, man,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “Back up. That is a wild alligator, not one they keep around here for fun.”
“Oh,” he said. Then he lit a cigarette. We bullshitted for a second and then he left. I marveled about people. I understand about wanting to be with wild creatures. I get it. It burns inside of me. But there’s also common sense, and if you’re unfamiliar with an animal, or a species of animal, use caution. Damn.
I admire Hendri Coetzee because he was fearless, not reckless. There is a difference, and he well knew the logical consequences of being in the wild, that is proven in interviews he held prior to the expedition. That’s why he knew the best bet wasn’t to panic, and I can guarantee you Hendri Coetzee wasn’t trying to pet a wild Congo crocodile. And someone even as beautiful and practical and experienced as him fell to the inevitabilities of nature.
I don’t judge Hendri and I sure don’t judge the airboat captain who lost his hand to the wild alligator. But I am saddened about the loss of life, about the alligators who, on a daily basis, are corrupted out here in the Everglades because people want to feed them for selfish reasons. Any gator that has knowingly been fed out here gets killed straight away, that’s the rule.
Take care, beloveds. Remember: no matter what happens, don’t panic.