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 airboat sputters to life. With the engine open full throttle and the craft skipping across the shallow water, Kennon steers down a well-worn path. The needle-grass stalks are shorter here than in most of the Everglades, and there's more water visible. Gasses trapped in the decaying muck are released as the airboat passes, leaving a trail of percolating brown water. When he reaches a grove of hardwood trees, Kennon shuts off the motor again.

“This was a canal that was cut out here in the 1920s when they were building the [Tamiami] Trail,” he whispers. “They didn't dynamite in here, but what they did is they came through and drug the muck off the top so the water was flowing away from the road they were trying to build. Because it's a little deeper water in here, the gators are particularly at home here. If you look, you'll probably see some of the holes they've dug.

“We've got some pretty purple gallinule in here if it's not getting too late for 'em to come out,” he says as the boat drifts down the canal. “A purple gallinule is a small bird with a real pretty, real deep-purple color. You can go to some parts of the Glades, you won't even see hardly any of 'em. For some reason they like this area in here. They're little birds about this high and they're very similar to a marsh hen.

Once they grow a little bigger, the alligators Kennon raises in his back yard will be sold to a farmer upstate
Once they grow a little bigger, the alligators Kennon raises in his back yard will be sold to a farmer upstate
The American flag still flies over bustling downtown Coopertown
The American flag still flies over bustling downtown Coopertown

“I've probably seen every bird that's out here. There's like 350 species of birds out here. I cain't necessarily name each one of 'em, but I'm familiar with 'em; I've seen 'em. You have a lot of wrens and types of sparrows in this area. There's a whole cluster of them out here. You got your major ones, your egrets and your herons. You got your tricolored herons. You've got your blue herons. And you got the snowy egret, the cattle egret and the American egret -- some people want to call him the big white egret -- and then what they call the white heron. Supposedly they figure it's a cross between the great blue heron and your white egret.

“I can remember most of this stuff. I deal with it and I live with it so I'm very familiar with it. You see the white band around the head of that bird there, that's an Everglades snail kite. I was raised on a farm so I learned a lot about animals to start with because that was how we made our living: taking care of animals. Plus we hunted, you know, for survival. And then when you're here, basically everything around here is your animals.

“When I was a kid, I could probably tell you every model of car and what car went down the street. I look at a car now if I'm not going to buy one, I don't even know what it is. So that's not an interesting factor to me. The animals out in the wild out here, that's an interesting factor to me. I like to see how they live, what they do, why they do things.”

Kennon sits in his pilot's chair admiring the sunset. The Glades lie almost silent, save the occasional croak of a bullfrog. Several minutes later there's a snap of wood. A nearby bush appears to rattle to life. From under its leaves a marbled-black mass slips into the water, headed for the boat. Kennon tosses a marshmallow in the alligator's direction. The animal noses up to the sweet. After a moment of consideration, he closes his jaws on the marshmallow, making it vanish in one clean snap.

“If you don't crowd an animal and you give him room, the animal will come and check you out just out of curiosity,” Kennon says. “But if you crowd him, he becomes afraid and defensive so then he'll remove, you know. But as long as you don't do that, you give him time to move around, 90 percent of the time he'll come to you.”

Kennon throws another marshmallow. The gator, a twelve-footer, sidles up to it on the strength of his swishing tail, his feet dangling on the dark silt. Again he inspects the marshmallow briefly, then snaps it up.

“He's a meat-eater,” Kennon goes on, “so he'll eat fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, snails. He'd prefer smaller food because his teeth are designed basically to crush and hold, you know. Like, he'll only take his big game if he has to. He'll take a deer if he's hungry enough.

“See how big his head is? Each inch between the nose and the eyes equals one foot of overall length. You can tell by the size of his head that he's one of the dominant males in this area. You're always going to have one male that's going to dominate over the rest of 'em. When mating season comes, all the gator females won't mate with just any alligator. You'll have one male that'll be the dominant male. He'll rule. And there might be another half a dozen males around, but he's gonna rule. 'Cause he's going to be the larger, he's going to be the stronger, and he'll be the only one mating with the females even though there's another six or eight gators around. Plus he'll challenge anything that comes close to here.

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