Requiem for a Swamp Rat

Everglades veteran Jesse Kennon loves to spend his days amid the saw grass and gators. But thanks to the government, he now qualifies as an endangered species.

The drive west on SW Eighth Street is the typical parade of Taco Bells and Amoco gas stations, their signs reflected in the rear bedroom windows of countless stucco subdivisions. Eventually, past Dade Corners and the Miccosukee bingo hall, the road opens up. A canal flows west, parallel to the road, which from this point is known as Tamiami Trail. Families of fishermen stand along its banks watching their lines for catfish and largemouth bass, marking the passing miles like sun-bronzed statues. On the south side of the road, airboat-tour advertisements leap from the brush. Eleven miles in from the turnpike, the first place you come to is Coopertown.

“Coopertown -- the Original” boasts the town's welcoming billboard. “Best in Florida since 1945 ... educational ... historical.” Coopertown is not technically a municipality. Nestled on the far northeastern edge of Everglades National Park, the settlement is surrounded by swamp on all sides. Although an enormous American flag billows gently in the breeze, there is no post office, public library, or town hall. Instead Coopertown functions as a ramshackle empire encompassing a private home and three related businesses, principally an airboat-tour operation. After nearly 50 years of commerce, though, Coopertown has earned de facto civic recognition. The town name appears on several geological maps, including several official park maps.

“Illegally parked Frogs will get Toad away,” warns a hand-painted sign inside the main window of the town's small restaurant, closed now at nearly 7:00 p.m. on a Sunday. The bait shop occupies an adjacent shack. At dawn it will bustle with patrons buying worms, artificial lures, and other freshwater tackle. Now, at the end of the day, it lies still and silent.

The parking lot is a long strip of asphalt stretching the width of Coopertown. Three cars are parked in front of an open-air thatched hut, where four picnic tables are cooled by swirling overhead fans. On a nearby counter sits a clear aquarium in which a herd of baby alligators climb over one another, their incandescent eyes staring longingly at the next tank, where tiny baby turtles rest uneasily.

A bulletin board behind the picnic tables features Everglades maps and a satellite photo of South Florida, with its expanses of Everglades bordered on the east by dense development. Amid other photos of giant turtles, black bears, and panthers, Coopertown's mayor, Jesse Kennon, is shown posing with a few of the gators that are the main draw of any airboat tour.

Kennon inherited the title of mayor when he took over Coopertown some twenty years ago from his cousin John Cooper. These days only Kennon and his wife live full-time on the property. But the population swells into double digits during working hours. Four waitresses take shifts in the restaurant while five drivers guide the airboat tours.

Kennon is a short man, 58 years old, with long orange hair pulled back in a ponytail. His bushy sideburns are bleached from prolonged sun exposure. This evening, as always, he's clad in a uniform of blue jeans and a worn green shirt that would be a button-down if the buttons weren't missing. The swath of skin that is exposed at the collar is bright pink, as are his arms and face.

“All right, that'll be $12 apiece,” Kennon says. He is standing behind the counter collecting money from the day's last group of tourists. His soft voice sounds slightly high in pitch, but his delivery is as smooth as any late-night disc jockey. Seven tourists have just climbed out of an airboat large enough to seat thirty. The boat is docked alongside the five other boats Kennon maintains in his tour rotation, and adjacent to the smaller black airboat he keeps for personal use.

Before heading off, three French-speaking sightseers pose with a giant sawdust-stuffed gator Kennon has positioned beside the counter. Kennon finishes counting the money, then looks up at the sky, which is clearing after a long, cloudy day. “Looks like it's going to be a real pretty sunset,” he says quietly.

The back of the Coopertown compound is dominated by a large concrete wading pool. An enormously fat alligator, at least eleven feet long and weighing some 900 pounds, lazes on a patch of grass near the pool. One of the French tourists sticks his hand through the chainlink fence protecting the gator pit, a not-very-risky act as this gator has made it perfectly clear he's not moving for anybody. Nearby sits a collection of plywood cages housing a barred owl, a red-tail hawk, and some exotic snakes.

“If I didn't have to deal with competition having gator shows and animals, I wouldn't even have all this,” Kennon says. “I'd stick to my boat ride 'cause that's what I believe in. The only thing I won't do is I won't put in a lot of exotic animals like a lot of these guys down here. What I do out here is strictly Everglades. Some of these places -- they've got parrots from wherever, monkeys from Africa, they got exotic animals, emus. That's stuff for Metrozoo. Right? I mean, that's the way I look at it.”

Beyond the animal quarry lies Kennon's three-bedroom house, constructed in 1947 with Dade County pine and added on to room by room whenever money became available. The house's yard is strewn with engine parts, a trailer crammed with tools, an abandoned Ford that's missing its starter, and a hot tub hidden in an outhouse-size shed with torn screens. The detritus of four or five airboats Kennon is in the process of rebuilding fill up any remaining space. “I've got three of 'em for sale right now,” he says. “They're all operating.”

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