In a world where the wild places are rapidly vanishing, critter man Jimmy English sees everything through “gator eyes”
By John Wolfe
The first day I rode with wildlife handler and master trapper Jimmy English, we caught a red fox — a rust-colored baby with a white cotton-ball-tipped tail and the frightened look of an animal that knows it has been trapped. They had been digging a den under the house of an old woman whose father built boats; the dirt they had dug out would fill wheelbarrows. If they kept at it, Jimmy said, they would excavate a cavity underneath the concrete foundation that could cause the building to collapse. He had lured the baby fox into his trap, a metal cage with a spring-loaded hinge on the end, with a Honey Bun: “They like sweet things, and cats don’t.”
When Jimmy grabbed the fox by the scruff to move it into a smaller trap, the baby shrieked. Suddenly, there came a bark from the woods, a sharp and morose-sounding yip. A wild sound. “Hear Momma?” asked Jimmy. I turned and peered into the trees. The distant silhouette of an adult fox materialized, barked once more, then vanished into the foliage. Jimmy carried the trapped fox to his truck, placed it gently in the bed, and covered it with a burlap sack so it wouldn’t overheat in the sun.
The question Jimmy hears most after trapping an animal is, “What are you going to do with it?” The answer to that question often depends on the animal. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the governmental body that issues the permits Jimmy needs to do his work, mandates rules Jimmy must follow. These rules prevent the spread of rabies, a virus which can live dormant inside an animal for up to six months without obvious symptoms, and sometimes the rules require the ending of an animal’s life. (Don’t worry — the aforementioned fox is going to be just fine.) But Jimmy is never cruel. “I don’t taunt animals,” he says. “I do what I’ve got to do, and treat them as gentle as I can, without them hurting themselves — or me.” He chuckles. “I’m number one.”
Jimmy started his business, Wildlife Removal Service, in 1998, but has been hunting, fishing and trapping his entire life, which is where he acquired the skills necessary to do what he does. “I was a little boy born in the country, right here on Myrtle Grove Sound.” His hands are massive and leathery, and his large, sun-beaten ears and nose reveal his octogenarian status. He is old enough that, in the Wilmington of his memory, the intersection of College and Oleander was a field with a few ponies and a sycamore tree. Despite his age, he moves with a quiet animal intensity that many younger men never achieve. “I guess there ain’t many people my age still working,” he says, but he keeps doing it. “I don’t know, I’ve always done it and I have to eat.”
Jimmy’s formal education ended in the eighth grade, because “the suspense of checking my rabbit traps out in the woods outweighed the necessity of catching the school bus.” With an ornery gleam in his weathered blue eyes, he tells me when he revealed that fact to Jim Leutze, a lifelong educator who wrote an article about him for Metro magazine. Mr. Leutze asked him what he would do differently if he could go back and live his life again. “He probably expected me to say finish school,” Jimmy says with a laugh. “But I told him, ‘I’d go back and catch more rabbits.’”
As I ride beside him in his pickup truck with our little red fox in the back, Jimmy asks me if I’ve ever been to Figure Eight Island. I have not. “Would you like to go? I’ve got to check my coyote trap.” Certainly, I say. I didn’t know there were coyotes here. Oh yes, he says, they’re in “every state in the union, except maybe Hawaii.” They’re diggers too — the main reason they’re a problem. That, and their appetite for house pets.
We cross the bridge. Jimmy jokes with the gate guard as he hands him his well-worn access pass. As we drive to the house (OK, mansion) where his trap is, he reminisces about growing up on Myrtle Grove Sound, when there were only half a dozen families that lived in that area. I ask him what effect the recent population growth on the coast has had on his business. Has he seen more incidence of animal encounters, now that humans have developed formerly wild spaces? “We’re not on (animal) territory,” he mutters, “they’re on our territory! The Bible says God gave man dominion over the animals of the Earth.” But the short answer is yes.
At the beach house, we find another mound of sand beside a hole burrowed under the concrete. No footprints in the sand; nothing in the trap. I am thankful for this — if the trap was full, Jimmy would have taken his .22 from the truck and put a bullet in the head of the coyote. And that’s when I understand the full extent of the brutality, and thanklessness, of his line of work. Most of the time, he tells me, the people who watch him work often sympathize with the animal. When he’s down in the mud with a big alligator, risking life and limb and drenched in sweat and mud, inevitably he hears someone in the back of the gathered crowd say, “Awww . . .” when he tapes the gator’s mouth shut.
Yet we need Jimmy, for the world we live in is still wild in many ways, and some people lack the skills or the stomach to deal with it. Perhaps the people who hire him know what the eventual fate of the animal might be, but they don’t want to witness it firsthand. Jimmy makes his living in the space between the choices that we make regarding animals, and the consequences of those choices.
We wander over the dunes. Jimmy and I look out over the Atlantic. He asks if I’ve ever heard the old joke about the man from the mountains who has never seen the sea: In his old age his children save their money and take him to the coast and place him on the sand, and he looks out over the glittering expanse in silence. “His children ask him, ‘Well, Father, what do you think?’” Jimmy says, a thin smile on his lips. “The old man turns and shakes his head. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I thought it would be bigger.’”
Jimmy promised I could come along the next time he got a call for an alligator. And so began the two weeks of my life I spent on Gator Watch, awaiting the phone call with Jimmy’s soft drawl on the other end, upgrading me to Gator Warning. The real trouble with waiting around for an alligator is that alligators don’t keep schedules, or make appointments, or even set reminders on their cellphones. They lie on the banks of the river all day, and whenever they feel like it they slink off to a retention pond, or the fairway of the ninth hole by the water hazard, where they continue to go about their gator business of basking in the sun until some surprised homeowner calls Jimmy English.
The phone doesn’t ring. Try as I might, I can’t make the gator appear. Perhaps there’s a larger lesson here, something about not being able to bend the world to your will all the time. So I give in. Sipping tea on my back porch, I watch the boughs wave on the pecan tree. I feel very much as an alligator might, waiting sleepily in the noontime sun. My watch slips off my wrist as I enter the weird limbo of Gator Time: I have no deadlines, no rent to pay, just a deep appreciation for blue sky and puffy white clouds, the dappled feeling of sun on my skin filtered through the treetops, the smell of flowers. This is the immediate world of the gator. Then, from somewhere in the strange regimented world of humanity surrounding me, comes a faint ringing sound . . .
Jimmy and I are driving over the bridge into Brunswick County. A pink sunset in front of us to the west; the silhouette of a great egret flying against it. We are heading toward a lake in a new development over here (Jimmy doesn’t want me to say which one, exactly, but you know the ones I mean, a well-manicured community filled with retired New Yorkers). Apropos of nothing, Jimmy, in his glorious Old Carolina accent, says, “We-aa-ll, old al-uh-gay-tuhs . . . They’re just as lost as I am, in this society that we’re livin’ in now . . . Poor ol’ things, tryin’ to get across the road, he don’t know and he don’t understand. They’re about like me, tryin’ to get around in traffic.” We share a laugh, the young transplanted writer and the old native critter man, then, wistfully, he says, “We’re both out of place.” And it is the truest thing he’s said to me so far. “I guess the world has built up around you both,” I add. “Yeah,” he says. “We’re maladjusted to times. I see everything through the gator’s eyes.”
An alligator’s eyes reflect fire red when a beam of light bounces off them. Dusk has passed, and we’re at the lake. A low, red full moon rises from the eastern treeline. It’s a little of a needle-in-a-haystack scenario; quite a bit of detective work is involved in tracking down the gator. As Jimmy says, “If you can’t find him, you can’t catch him.”
Alligators are nocturnal, feeding more often at night. Jimmy’s son, Bubba, wears a helmet with a high-powered flashlight on the front. He is scanning the fringes of the lake, the beam sweeping across the far banks, cutting through the blackness. “There’s an ol’ bullfrog,” he says, pointing to where two specks of yellow reflect back toward us. Bubba is shorter than Jimmy, stocky and powerfully built. He has been working alongside his father, helping out with the big gators, for 20 years. Bubba has nicknamed this gator Houdini, because he is so difficult to find. “There’s about 3 or 4 miles of water connected back here,” says Bubba. “He could be anywhere.”
I don’t get to meet Houdini tonight, but Jimmy calls me a few days later — he’s got a gator in the back of his truck from Salter Path. I miss the catch, but Jimmy has told me enough about it that I can visualize it. He catches more than 50 alligators every year, and the tactics he uses are different each time. Typically, he says, “The gators I move have been fed by the public. And so when they see me, they think I’ve come to feed them. And they’ll approach me, and I’ll keep feeding them, throwing the bait closer and closer to me, until he gets close enough that I can catch him with a noose. If that doesn’t work, we can set a trap to catch him.”
OK I say, so you’ve got the noose on him. What’s next? “Go on ’im!” says Jimmy. What? Just go on him? “Yeah! No other way.”
“What’s going through your mind when your hands are on that gator, Jimmy?” I ask.
“I have strictly, 100 percent, got my mind on my business,” he replies. “There could be a thousand people standin’ around there, and I wouldn’t know they were there. You take your mind off your business, and in a split second, you’re minus an arm. When a gator bites you, he’s just like a turtle — he bites and holds on. And the more you try to get him off, the tighter he bites. He’s a tenacious little bulldog. And anybody who gets bit by a gator, and the gator just turns him loose? The Lord is smilin’ on him.” Has that ever happened? “Little ones, yeah. I been eaten up before by the little ones, taking chances. Might be compared to grabbing a running chainsaw. I ain’t gonna take no chances with the big ones.”
Jimmy invites me over to meet the gator. He and Bubba are preparing to inject a microchip into the gator’s flank, and take tissue samples from two of the scutes, or ridges, on the gator’s back, at the request of state biologists. Then they will release him in the Green Swamp or Holly Shelter. I pull up to the house, walk up to the back of Jimmy’s truck, and good God, there’s an alligator staring back at me, two lizard eyes on a massive green-black head, fading to a muddy yellow underneath. This animal is eight feet long and 275 pounds, but I can’t take my eyes off the mouth, which retains its toothy menace, even though it’s wrapped shut. The gator sits inside a black plastic corrugated drainage tube, which Jimmy designed and specially modified for relocating alligators. There is a hatch closing one end and a cage capping the other, with two handles on each side for lifting.
Even though he’s contained, I feel a primal rush of fear, a squirt of adrenaline. This is a predator. Jimmy says that when an alligator focuses on something he wants to catch, he doesn’t take his eyes off it, something he calls tunnel vision. This gator looks at me that way now, and I’m glad Jimmy English has come between me and it. But as terrifying as it is, it is beautiful, too — sleek and dark, with the texture of weathered creek stone, the sublime beauty of the shark and tiger. A creature put on this planet for one purpose: to eat, to consume, to grow as big as it can. I see the wild part of myself reflected in its eyes.
John Wolfe studied creative nonfiction at UNCW. When he’s not in the water, he wishes he were.