If there is anything the recent ice storm has taught us, it is how helpless we can be when confronted with the forces of nature. And while there is much to be said for the traditional weaponry when plotting a murder, I find myself drawn to the natural world to do my dirty work.
In my novel, Tooth and Claw, Nola Jensen, an attractive wealthy woman with a past and some strange predilections, travels to New Orleans for a business conference. There her past catches up with her. What should have been a peaceful and enjoyable cruise on the Louisiana bayous turns into her worst nightmare, when she is pushed overboard and into the jaws of a very hungry alligator.
Although I have vacationed in New Orleans, one of my favourite cities, and have in fact, enjoyed a bayou cruise, I was not that familiar with alligators, so some research was necessary. While visiting my friends Janice and Larry Hatt at their West Palm Beach condo, I prevailed upon them to take me to see alligators. We went to a place in the Everglades called Shark Valley. Why it is named Shark Valley is a mystery to me since it is not a valley and there was a noticeable absence of anything resembling sharks. But there were alligators galore, and after, wandering off on a trail during a break in the tour and nearly stepping upon one – fortunately for me fast asleep – I wisely stayed in the tram for the duration of the outing.
Alligators continue to fascinate me, albeit from a safe distance. Genetically, they are linked to dinosaurs and have been around for some 230 million years, without evolving much. And while human beings are not part of their usual diet, they are considered opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat anything that comes their way. In 1995, a nuisance alligator was killed. The ‘gator, estimated to be about 50 years old, had seven dog collars in its stomach, one from a dog that had been missing for 14 years.
The jaws of the American alligator can exert 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch- enough to crunch bones. They generally kill their prey by rolling until the prey drowns. They then stash the kill in a muddy bank or underwater cave until it is putrid enough for the alligator to tear off pieces.
Alligators were hunted almost to extinction for their skin which is made into fashionable leather goods – shoes, handbags and belts, until they were declared an endangered species. However in recent years, their numbers have increased dramatically, and there is now an annual hunt in the bayous. Hunting licences are required for this. The recent series, Swamp People, on the History Channel, documents the hunt.
The supremacy of ‘gators in the Florida Everglades is now threatened by pythons. While not native to this part of the world, the giant snakes have found the Everglades to be an ideal home with no natural predators. The pythons are thought to number in the hundreds of thousands. An urban myth is that people adopted the snakes when babies as pets, but as they got bigger and threatened small children and family dogs and cats, the owners irresponsibly released them into the Everglades. A more plausible theory is that the snakes originally escaped from a breeding facility that was damaged in a hurricane. Winters in Louisiana tend to be about ten degrees colder than Florida which is too cold for the pythons and probably explains why the Louisiana alligators have not been threatened by the snakes.
If history stays the course, the alligators will prevail and continue on for many more millennia.
Joan O’Callaghan is a recipient of the Golden Apple Award from Queen’s University Faculty of Education for Excellence in Teaching; named Professor of the Year by OISE/UT Students Council, as well as Most Engaging English Instructor and Most Inspirational Instructor.
Her short story Stooping to Conquer appeared in the 2012 Anthology EFD1: Starship Goodwords (Carrick Publishing)