Chomp in the Swamp

Tracking South Florida's endangered crocodiles is a business best left to experts and maniacs

With the twin towers of the nuclear reactors looming in the background, it is impossible not to wonder if this ocular glow isn't caused by strontium 90 fallout, or from years of seeping radiation and crocodile inbreeding. As we roar in toward the first nest, the reporter makes a silent vow to demand immediate shore leave if the any of animals examined has more than four legs or one head.

Just a few feet from a berm, Wasilewski and Lloyd spot a dozen or more hatchlings scrambling about under the low branches of a Brazilian pepper tree, but before starting to reach for the young crocs, they also see a seven-foot-long adult lurking on the bottom. "Let's get Mama out of here,"says Wasilewski. He pokes his hand in the water and casually touches the adult's tail, which sends the crocodile into a silent glide out of sight. Now Lloyd and Wasilewski stretch over the gunwales to grab handfuls of baby crocs, which they drop into a cloth sack. A freshly hatched crocodile is a thin, gangly squirmer with a rubbery feel, and it comes with the instinct to bite. The teeth are sharp as needles, able to break the tender skin of a computer jockey, but the jaws have no power.

"I admire the spunky ones," says Wasilewski, holding up a feisty hatchling, which produces a squeaky chirrup as the scientist stretches it out to examine the open umbilicus on its underside. "He could be the first one down the tarpon's belly, but you like to think that the ones with the spirit may make it."

With a mop-top cut to his reddish hair and a freckled complexion, Wasilewski is a boyish-looking man of 45 whose enthusiasm for his work betrays his good fortune in being able to make a living doing something he loves. He got hooked on reptiles, he says, after buying a chameleon from a circus huckster in his native Chicago when he was seven or eight. From there he went on to collect snakes, turtles, insects, and anything else that slithered or crawled.

Among the last of the draftees in 1972, he was trained by the U.S. Army to handle sentry dogs, but instead of being sent to Vietnam he was posted to a missile base in Carol City. While still in the service he began to work at the Miami Serpentarium -- now closed -- for legendary snake man Bill Haast. Wasilewski took a degree in biology from Florida International University in 1981, and, after Haast gave him a surplus crocodile, he gathered up his own collection of snakes, lizards, and spiders and opened a roadside zoo-cum-nature center on the Tamiami Trail.

From those beginnings Wasilewski went on to fashion a freelance career as scientist, businessman, animal handler, and entertainer. It pays enough to provide a living wage for him and his fifteen-year-old son Nick. As a result of his field work for FP&L, he has shared author credits on several studies published in scientific journals. But Wasilewski also runs a retail reptile shop, Natural Selections, out of a warehouse near Tamiami Airport; provides all types of lizards, alligators, and snakes from his personal menagerie for commercial shoots and films (such as Lords of the Everglades, a National Geographic Society special that aired in May); does show-and-tell sessions for schools; and will even wrestle a seven-foot-long croc or gator for a convention of car dealers or health-care professionals if the price is right -- about $1000.

In fact, on this very evening, Wasilewski goes to the mat with a crocodile. Near midnight Lloyd waves the light over a Brazilian pepper tree on a berm in Canal 10, Section 4, and Wasilewski guns the airboat toward the bank. A few feet away, with the engine killed and the aluminum craft coasting quietly toward the shore, Wasilewski suddenly lunges off the bow into the bushes and completely disappears. The three people still on board dodge branches, and Lloyd tries to throw some light on the area. A wild thrashing breaks out in the water. The reporter's thoughts flash back to Jaws and those one-ton saltwater crocs of the Nile. Should a radio call for help go out? Should someone else jump in after Wasilewski and feel around in there?

The cameraman is busy. The reporter has to take notes.
Stu?
Just when someone may have muttered, "He's a goner," Wasilewski reappears from under the tree, with a Davy Crockett grin on his face and a four-foot-long crocodile writhing in his hands. "Got him!" he announces proudly. By the time he climbs back into the boat with his catch, Wasilewski notes the clipped scutes on the animal's tail that tell him this croc has been caught before. Records back in the lab will tell Wasilewski when and where. The field biologist measures and weighs the animal, admires it for a minute more, and then gently releases it over the side. "We can get a lot of information from this guy," he says as the croc disappears.

Indeed, information is power, especially for scientists working to improve the crocodiles' chances of survival. With their faint smiles, bug eyes, and cool leather exteriors, crocodiles small enough to be held in the hand are almost lovable. At that size, they hardly seem the horrible monsters that so fascinate and repel. Yet only about ten percent of hatchlings survive their first year, and even fewer will survive the four years needed to grow to four feet, Wasilewski says. Raccoons are notorious for eating eggs; hatchlings get swallowed by large wading birds and fish; and fire ants can strip a baby croc into a baby skeleton in minutes. Not to mention cars, which hit them when they dare to cross highways.

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