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The Alligator’s Allure: Changing Conceptions of a Charismatic Carnivore Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Department of History, Virginia Tech Dangerous NuisanceValuable.

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Presentation on theme: "The Alligator’s Allure: Changing Conceptions of a Charismatic Carnivore Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Department of History, Virginia Tech Dangerous NuisanceValuable."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Alligator’s Allure: Changing Conceptions of a Charismatic Carnivore Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Department of History, Virginia Tech Dangerous NuisanceValuable CommodityEndangered Species Symbol of the LandscapeFierce Predator Abstract Since first encountering the American alligator in the early sixteenth century, Euroamericans have struggled to get a handle on this large reptile. Through an examination of numerous written and visual sources, I conclude that we have thought about this charismatic species in myriad ways: as a fearsome predator, a symbol of the landscape, a valuable commodity, an endangered species, and a dangerous nuisance. With increasingly intense management, the alligator has become semi-domesticated, yet another example of “nature on a leash,” to use the filmmaker John Sayles’s suggestive phrase. Introduction The American alligator (known to scientists as Alligator mississipiensis) is a large, toothy reptile that can grow to 16 feet or more. Although it inhabits the freshwater swamps, marshes, rivers, and lakes throughout much of the southeastern United States, the species is most abundant in the states of Florida and Louisiana. As a member of the order Crocodilia, the alligator belongs to a 230 million-year-old lineage that survived the Cretaceous mass extinction, when 85 percent of the earth’s species perished. As a semi-aquatic creature, the alligator moves freely between water and land. And as a large, top-level carnivore, the creature not only projects a menacing presence but also occasionally consumes humans and their pets. Given these many boundary crossings— chronological, geographical, and gastronomical—Americans have long struggled to get a precise handle on this charismatic reptile, and they have thought about it in various (sometimes contradictory) ways. My research explores how Euroamericans have conceptualized the alligator, a species that serves as a “repository of meaning,” to borrow historian Richard White’s evocative phrase. Working on the boundaries between environmental history, history of science, and cultural history, I have sought to unpack the tangled layers of perception associated with this multivalent vestige of the prehistoric era. Discussion One of the oldest ways of thinking about the alligator is as a fierce predator. European explorers who first encountered the species saw it as a local variant of the Nile crocodile, which had long been seen as an evil, voracious beast notorious for consuming humans. While naturalists have struggled to debunk the notion that the alligator shares the crocodile’s aggressive nature, the image remains vivid in the minds of most who encounter the species. Shading into the perception of the alligator as a charismatic carnivore is the related view of the species as a symbol of the landscape it inhabits. In the sixteenth century, the reptile quickly became one of the standard icons used to represent the newly discovered Americas. Cont. With the rise of the tourist trade in the late nineteenth century, the alligator came to be closely associated with Florida, the state where it was most abundant. According to one travel writer, the species represented the “star and leading attraction” of the river excursions popular with the state’s early tourists. With the adoption of the automobile, numerous roadside attractions—dubbed alligator farms—also began featuring the creature. The third conceptual filter through which Americans have tended to view the alligator is as a valuable commodity. As with other New World flora and fauna, Euroamericans sought to turn a profit from the alligator. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century, however, did it face intense market pressure from the hide and souvenir trade. In 1893, a federal official estimated that 2.5 million hides had been shipped out of Florida since Demand for alligator leather soared with the growth in affluence following the Second World War. Relentless commodification of the alligator led to calls for its protection. In 1961, Florida officials closed the hunting season for the species. Yet, poachers continued to take illegally obtained alligator hides across state lines, where they could be sold without fear of prosecution. After concerned conservationists called for federal protection of the increasingly beleaguered reptile, it became one of the first species listed under Endangered Species Acts of 1969 and With improved protection, its population quickly rebounded. The growing gator population quick ran up against Florida’s expanding human population. By 1975, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission was responding to about 5,000 complaints per year involving “nuisance” alligators that had ventured too close to humans. In 1978, the state of Florida began a more aggressive control program using private contractors to kill nuisance alligators. Today, it appears that the species can only continue to survive in the “wild” through intense management of the alligators that regularly wander into the thousands of lakes, ponds, and backyard pools that dot the landscape. Conclusion An examination of changing conceptions of the alligator reveals not only a longstanding fear of the beast but also a yearning to tame or domesticate it. Euroamericans have long sought to manipulate and control the natural world. As Florida’s human population continues expanding, the alligator has been confined to ever-smaller wetland plots, and individuals transgressing the artificial boundaries erected to confine it face swift destruction. The American alligator has thus become a kind of semi-domesticated reptile subjected to intense human surveillance, manipulation, and intervention. Albert the Alligator, ca The idea of the alligator as symbol of the Florida landscape gained further reinforcement when the University of Florida adopted the reptile as its official mascot in From: C. C. Lockwood, The Alligator Book (2002). Facts about Florida, A promotional brochure from the Clyde Steamship Company, featuring a racist depiction of an African-American sitting astride an alligator. More common were images depicting alligators attacking African-Americans, which remained widely available until the 1950s. Courtesy of Dean Rodina at Alligator Brand citrus label, ca. 1930s. Florida citrus growers and packers promoted brand loyalty through colorful labels attached to wooden crates containing their fruit. This striking label depicts an apparently tame (though still vaguely menacing) alligator standing on two legs and serving a tray of oranges William Bartram’s sketch of the alligator, ca On the eve of the American Revolution, Bartram traveled extensively throughout the sparsely settled southeastern North America. His popular and influential book, Travels (1791), featured a chilling account of alligators attacking his boat. From: Joseph Ewan, ed., William Bartram: Botanical and Zoological Drawings, (1968). Range of the American alligator. The alligator originally ranged across the southeastern United States. It was always most abundant, though, in the states of Louisiana and (especially) Florida. From: The U.S. Geological Survey website, Theodore DeBry engraving of a Jacques LeMoyne watercolor, One of the earliest illustrations of the American alligator, depicting it as a large, aggressive predator being fought off by Native Americans. From: Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). Hawking alligator goods in New Orleans, ca When the alligator population rebounded in the 1970s, a brisk trade in expensive alligator goods resumed. From: C. C. Lockwood, The Alligator Book (2002). Alligator attacks in Florida, Alligator attacks on humans are quite rare. Florida, a state with nearly 18 million residents and 1-2 million alligators, has experienced only 351 major attacks and 18 human fatalities since officials started keeping records in From: Naple News website, Newspaper article featuring nuisance alligators, Alligators frequently wander onto Florida’s golf courses, swimming pools, ponds, and lakes, and when they do, residents usually call a hotline set up to report them. In 2005, Florida officials received 18,000 nuisance alligator calls, and trappers killed more than 7,700 alligators. The sale of alligator hides and meat pays for the program. From: Gainesville Sun, August 10, Tanned alligator hides, ca The bottom of the hide (left) produces a supple leather used in purses, wallets, belts, shoes and other expensive goods beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. From: Charles H. Stevenson, “The Utilization of the Skins of Aquatic Animals,” Alligator at the door, Hilton Head, S.C., Although alligators generally avoid people, they often frighten residents when they fail to do so. This photograph, taken by Richard Holinski, depicts a six-foot long alligator that seems to be knocking of the door of a home. From: Bluffton Today website, A Florida maneater, ca Alligators have long been considered ferocious predators with a taste for human flesh, as in the toothy, menacing reptile depicted on this early twentieth-century souvenir postcard. Actual attacks on humans, though, prove quite rare. Courtesy of the Matheson Historical Center, Gainesville, Florida. Alligators at dusk, Paynes Prairie, Alachua Country, Florida, With federal protection in the 1960s and 1970s, the Florida alligator population quickly recovered, as depicted in this striking photograph featuring dozens of alligators whose eyes are reflecting light from the camera flash. From: John Moran, Journal of Light: The Visual Diary of a Florida Nature Photographer (2004). Alligator wrestling at Gatorland, ca Soon after alligator farms opened in the late nineteenth century, they began featuring an act dubbed “alligator wrestling.” From: C. C. Lockwood, The Alligator Book (2002). Article on the decline of the alligator, Archie Carr wrote this article during a campaign for stronger federal protection for the alligator, which seemed to be near extinction. From: Archie Carr, “Alligators: Dragons in Distress,” National Geographic (1967). The St. Augustine Alligator Farm, This panoramic photograph depicts one of the earliest alligator farms established in the United States. By 1930 more than a dozen of these popular tourist attractions had sprouted across Florida. From: Library of Congress, American Memory Project website,


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