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.

Recently park officials informed Kennon that they are preparing to issue a “declaration of taking” on his property. If they do this, and they've said they want to do it by the first of the year, he simply loses his title to his land. Only after the property is in government control will a commission consider compensation to Kennon for his loss. As with the 1994 offer, Kennon stands to be paid for the value of his land, but there is virtually no chance he'll be compensated for his lost business. Although he is offended by the settlement offer, he remains more upset that he's being asked to leave at all.

“I don't think anybody can stand here at this point and tell me anything we do with this airboat is detrimental,” he asserts. “The environment and fauna in this particular area have been here since we began doing this in 1945. Now, I can see if I come in here and I dredge a canal and I tear it up and there's no grass and there's no birds and there's no wildlife, then I'm being detrimental. But this [he points to a great blue heron], this is what you see after 50-something years of us running tours in this same spot. It's not like we're moving every day to a new location. And you see all the wildlife that you're seeing? They'll just fly out of the way and come right back in behind the boat. They're not spooked. They're not startled because we do this every day.

“It's not like I can move down to another corner,” he says. “Where can I duplicate this? Where can I reproduce what I do here?”

Kennon presides over metropolitan Coopertown, everything from the airboat tours to the small restaurant
Kennon presides over metropolitan Coopertown, everything from the airboat tours to the small restaurant

The sky has darkened considerably, though it'll be another 30 minutes before the sun sets completely. A low cloud cover reflects the bright white light of the city. Lightning flashes over Homestead, some 25 miles to the south. The towering new Miccosukee hotel can be seen on the horizon, as can the lights from Dade Corners (Tamiami Trail and Krome Avenue) and from a neighboring concrete plant.

Kennon dons a mining hat to give himself a headlight for nighttime navigation. In the silence before he restarts the engine, the click clicking of a thousand green tree frogs mixes with the throaty croaks from the larger bullfrogs.

“That's how frogs court,” Kennon says. “They court by the sound and by which voice is deeper or stronger. The biggest voice doesn't necessarily mean he's the biggest frog, but that's how they do their courting. The one that's got the most powerful-sounding voice is gonna find females over the one that doesn't have it.

“That up-and-down sound you just heard right there? Now you're hearing white egrets, too,” Kennon explains. “The night shift is out working.”

A gator floats in front of the boat, silent as a stick, unnoticed by even Kennon until his headlamp illuminates its slit eyeball. Later in the week Kennon plans to hunt down a couple of gators, an annual ritual for which he's won a license. “I'm allowed two gators per hunt,” he says. “I got a week's time frame to hunt 'em in. There's one big gator I know is over thirteen feet long. It's just a matter if I can find him. Last year he was smart, he buried up and I never could find him. The biggest things I could find last year was twelve foot, six inches. I figure this'll be my last year of hunting. If I don't get him, then I won't catch anything.

“I've hunted enough gators over the years, you know? I just basically want to go for a trophy hunt, that's the only reason. This one gator's almost fourteen feet. That's a lot of alligator, the biggest I've ever had my hands on. This boat's twelve foot long; that gives you an idea. But I'd like to have one real nice trophy 'cause mainly if they put me out of the Everglades, then where am I going to go? And then I would like to have a kind of reminder.”

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