By TERRI BRYCE REEVES
’Tis spring. The season when an alligator’s fancy turns to thoughts
of love. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the courtship begins in early April and mating occurs in May and June. This means alligators get restless and can wander into neighborhood retention ponds, backyards and pools where they usually aren’t welcome.
That’s when Julie Harter’s phone starts ringing.
As one of the state’s few female licensed nuisance alligator trappers, the
five-foot, nine-inch brunette is on-call with the FWC 24 hours, seven days a week
including holidays. Her territory covers East Hillsborough, from New Tampa to Sun City.
“It’s a lifestyle,” said the 56-year-old grandmother. “I’ll be cooking a family
dinner and get a call and I just have to tell the family, ‘Sorry. Gotta go!’”
One time, she had to suspend a Mother’s Day dinner for two hours while
she captured a nine-footer.
Harter said some people are in disbelief when a woman shows up to capture the
gators. “Sometimes I play along and pretend I’m just a damsel in distress,” she said.
But when she fetches her catch pole, loops it around the hissing gator’s head,
jumps on its back, wraps the snout with electrical tape, and drags the thrashing
creature to her truck, well, they pretty much know she’s the real deal.
Her biggest catch was a 12-foot, eight-inch alligator that wandered into the
backyard of a Tampa Palms neighborhood.
It was more than a nuisance.
“It had killed an 85-pound golden retriever,” she said.
An estimated 1.3 million gators occupy the state but alligators seldom bite people
and fatalities from such occurrences are rare. Over the last 10 years, Florida has
averaged six unprovoked bites per year that were serious enough to require professional medical treatment. The likelihood of a Florida resident being seriously injured during an unprovoked alligator incident is roughly one in 3.2 million. From 1948 to 2017, 24 bites resulted in human fatalities.
Amazingly, Harter has never been bitten. That could be because of the advice given to her by her trapper husband, Billy Harter, who trained her.
“He always told me, ‘Treat each one like it’s the first one you ever caught. Don’t get sloppy or complacent because that’s the one that’ll get you.’”
In 2003, he was killed in a tragic helicopter accident; she figured her trapping days were over. Then she got a call from the state asking her to apply to take
over his trapping contract.
She already had the gear, the experience and the license, so she agreed. On her own she became known as the Lady Gator Trapper; her license plate is personalized with the moniker.
Besides her trapping career, Harter has a flexible day job at Hope Services which
helps people with disabilities find jobs. Prior to that, the Lakeland resident spent over 30 years with the Polk County school system as a certified special education teacher.
Harter catches over 200 gators a year. Young alligators under four feet are released back into the wild. Over four feet and they’re headed for the processor.
This used to be a pretty lucrative gig back in the day when alligator hides could fetch $40 a foot, but the rise of alligator farming and permitted legal harvesting has driven prices down to $3 a foot. Meat prices have held at $10 per pound. Harter keeps some of the meat for herself and her family and sells some to restaurants and individuals.
“It’s really good. It’s a beautiful white meat that tastes like a mixture of chicken,
pork and fish,” she said.
Since nuisance trappers don’t get paid by the state, there is little, if any, profit with the current market.
“I don’t do it for the money,” she said. “I love what I do and consider it a service
and a great privilege.”
See a recipe for gator wings in this issue. Those interested in purchasing alligator meat from Harter may reach her at email@example.com.