Requiem for a Swamp Rat

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.”

Also sharing the back yard is another concrete gator pit, smaller and not for public display. Inside the pit, contained by a chainlink lid, more than a dozen juvenile alligators squirm as Kennon approaches. “I get the baby gators from one of my gators out back who's laying eggs. She has a nest built there which should be hatching any day now. And then what I do is I take 'em and I put them in the pits. What I'd like to do is try to put in three or four more gators pits out here. That way I'll have all the different sizes of gators.”

Kennon keeps his baby gators for four years or so, then sells them to a farmer who raises them for their hide and meat. Some of that meat may return, served up on a plate at the Coopertown canteen. The restaurant specialties are alligator tail and frog legs.

He gestures to a second, smaller pit, now empty. “That there pit's for rasslin'. I've got a ten-foot gator. I feed him chicken and beef. Sometimes I rassle him here or I put on exhibitions for a friend of mine in Miami Springs. I'm getting to do that less and less. As I get older, gators are starting to get faster and stronger.” He holds up his right hand, upon which a hand-carved gold alligator winds around his ring finger. “I figure I'm 58 years old and I still have 'em all intact. How many more years can I push it?”

It's a question that resonates on more than one level. Seven years ago Kennon learned that his property is marked for purchase and inclusion in an expansion of Everglades National Park. Only a few months ago, he was informed that the acquisition is likely to occur within the year. This turn of events has left Kennon furious. But it has done nothing to dampen his appreciation for the Glades themselves. Just the opposite. With his remaining days numbered, Kennon has gotten into the habit of taking his personal airboat out into the swamp. He doesn't have a destination in mind or a job to do. He just sits in the watery grass listening to the bullfrogs croak and watching the herons glide around the trees.

Tonight is one of those nights. Kennon closes up his shop, grabs a handful of marshmallows, and heads for his small airboat, its sleek black hull decorated with a faded painting of a green alligator, jaws open for an attack. He pushes the boat into the canal, then swings his legs up and inside. Climbing into a seat perched three yards above the waterline, he flips a switch. The engine screams to life as the propeller blade disappears in a whirl. Kennon aims the craft down an alley of lily pads and steps on the gas.

The Everglades open up before him, the setting sun illuminating a prairie of green and tan grasses, flat horizon broken periodically by islands of trees. Overhead the sky is just fading from powder blue to violet, complemented by cloudy orange stripes. After a winding ten-minute ride through tall grass, Kennon cuts the engine, wiping away a handful of small spiders that crawl over his jeans and boots.

“They're grass spiders,” he says. “They don't bite you or nothing. They're in the tall grass area like that, the saw grass. You can tell the different grasses by looking. You'll see the needle grass is like a little round grass, okay? And saw grass is three-sided.” Kennon hops down from his perch, leans over the boat, and pulls on a blade of saw grass, snapping it off.

“The reason it's called saw grass is because it's like a real fine miniature saw. That's what 70 percent of the grass in the Everglades is. See how it is? You can run your fingers this way with the grain and you won't feel it. But you come back the other way you'll find the edges will dig in just like a saw tooth. The saw grass actually gets to where it grows ten, twelve foot tall and runs for miles in the area. Most of the grass that you see will be your thresh grass, your needle grass, and your saw grass; those are your three basic grasses out here in this area.

“I think the back end of the boat is almost touching, so where we're at now we're probably running in only about ten inches of water out here. It's up and down. Some of the area we just came through, the water was down to about two inches. We're actually about twelve inches below what is normal water for this time of year if we got a full rainy season.

“We're out here seven days a week and we can tell the difference when the water table's up, when it's not up, you know, what plants are blooming and what's not. I imagine if you check, you'll probably find out that we're way below normal on rainfall. We've had rain but it's all been scattered showers -- we haven't been getting any overall rain, just little squalls that come through here and there. Like today it looked like it was going to pound down rain all day. We never got a drop out here all day long. I'm sure someplace did but, you know, all it did was slow down the evaporation. Didn't do nothing else.”

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.

“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.

“I learned all this by watching it over the years. For the last 22 years I've been here every day, seven days a week, you know, nighttime and daytime. It's not like I open at 8:00 and close at 6:00, you know. I see what these animals do and how they respond to different things. Each one of them has different reactions. Each of them has different personalities.

“This one here we call Ghost,” he says. “You won't even hear him coming and then all of a sudden you'll be setting someplace and all of a sudden you look, and there he is setting there. So we kind of gave him the name Ghost. A lot of 'em see the boat coming, they'll come out in the middle of the trail, you know. He won't. He might just be setting back on.”

Ghost eats another marshmallow. He is so close to the boat now and appears so tame that it's hard to resist the impulse to reach over and pet him.

“Yeah,” says Kennon, with a chuckle. “This is definitely not a petting zoo. He looks like he's very docile and he basically is, but you know if he feels threatened, then he becomes aggressive just out of protection.”

The faint buzz of another airboat rises in the distance. “This is an open area right here,” Kennon says. “Anyone is allowed out here.” Other tour operators, such as Buffalo Tiger's and Everglades Safari, have divided the land into informal but well-defined turfs. “They respect other people's territory and they'll stay away, most of them,” Kennon notes. “I think that looks like my friend Billie coming over.”

The man presumed to be Billie sidles up alongside the hammock and cuts his engine. It's impossible to see him over the tree line. “You all right?” Billie shouts.

“Yeah, we're all right,” Kennon answers.

“All right?”

“Yeah, I'm fine. Were you out just riding around?”

“Yeah, just farting around a little bit.”

“All right. I'm just sitting here talking, that's all.”

Billie heads off. As the noise from his airboat fades, the croaking of the bullfrogs and the click click of the tiny green tree frogs picks up.

“It is nice just to come out here and relax,” Kennon says. “It's totally relaxing. It's nice because even after work sometimes I'll just get out and kinda ride or just come out and set sometimes. 'Cause at night it's like a shift change. Everything becomes very still, you know. It's like before the next shift really starts. There's a feeling this time of day. The air feels different, with the winds usually dying down. The day animals are going to sleep and the night ones are just waking up.”

Before him, two young female alligators clock in by entering the canal. Kennon throws each of them a marshmallow. He watches, smiling, as they silently consider -- then devour -- the treats.

Even in the fading light, Kennon's skin appears so fair and is burnt such a violent shade of red, that he appears to be the last person who should spend his days out in the Florida sun. “My ancestors were Welsh, English, and Irish,” he explains. “The whole family's from southeast Missouri, though, basically from a part of the state that was major farmland, what they called the Dutch Valley. A lot of English sea captains settled in that particular area also. So that's my heritage.

“My cousin John Cooper originally came down here toward the end of World War II. The war plants where he had been building ammo were slowing down. He figured he needed some place to make a living. The family are all outdoorsmen, you know, so he came down here to Florida to start frogging.

“You know where now is Dade Corners? Well, just across the street from Dade Corners there used to be a little pier there. They'd drive their homemade wooden airboats up there and they'd clean their frogs and sell 'em to different passersby or take 'em to the fish houses or wherever they would sell 'em to. People'd see them selling their frog legs there and start asking them to take 'em for a ride in the Everglades. So John, he figured: “Well, heck, if I build a bigger boat I can haul people during the daytime in the Everglades and in the nighttime I can still frog.'

“After a while he came down and bought this property down here, which used to be the old Jimmie Osceola camp. Years before that, it was actually used as a layover camp while they built the road during the Twenties. John and his family lived in tents here for two years before he built the first house, in 1947. They were tough people, real pioneers. Everyone in my family's been this way. That's how they started the first commercial airboat rides in the Everglades. The family's been here ever since.

“I didn't come here directly. I was a kid raised basically on the farm, in southeast Missouri. I quit school when I was in the ninth grade. I was playing first-string football and I got my leg tore up so I couldn't play. Once I couldn't play sports anymore it was like, eh, now I can't play and have fun, so let's make a living. That was my outlook. When I turned fifteen, I left the farm and went to work in the city, St. Louis. I was a butcher's helper and then a packer in a warehouse. When I was sixteen, I come home drunk one night at midnight, threw everything I had in a car, and went to California.

“I started working in a warehouse, like in St. Louis. I worked there for a couple weeks. Then I got a job working for a large tree-transplanting company. Three weeks after I went to work for them, we did some landscaping for Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason at that time. He liked the way I worked and hired me as the caretaker at his house. I ran all these errands for him. I still worked as a tree transplanter, but I was also working private parties at his hotels and driving his limousines. A couple of hours a day was mine; the rest of the time I was working.

“Raymond Burr wanted to send me to college for two years to learn about the plants and things because a lot of the plants were from the Bahamas and were hard to grow out in Malibu, where he had his home. Instead I decided to enroll in the navy, 'cause I figured they were going to draft me anyway, for Vietnam. I served four years.

“All this time I'm still a young man. The Seagram's distillery hired me three months before I was 21 years old, and I worked for them for eight and a half years in advertising and sales promotion. When I first started, I was doing advertising in stores and bars and stuff like that all over the Los Angeles area. I transferred to Chicago, but they didn't honor the promotion they promised me, so I quit and went into construction. My cousin John down here kept bugging me. He said, “Why don't you just buy me out 'cause I'm too old; I'm tired and I want to retire.' So after talking to him for about a year, a year and a half, I came down and took over Coopertown permanently. That was in 1982.

“It's comfortable here for me. I've always been an outdoors person. The only thing different about the Everglades is it's wet.”

The airboat glides slowly down the canal, drifting on a barely perceptible current. Herons and egrets peer down from perches atop the trees. A soft-shell turtle floats over for a look. In the brush a boat-tailed grackle flaps his radiant dark-blue wings, which are molting this time of year.

“This used to be extremely beautiful before Hurricane Andrew,” Kennon says. “We used to have tall trees in here, real tall coconut palms and everything. When we went through here, our boats had to lower our flags because the canopy was just solid. Now it's nothing like it was, though we still get a lot of air plants growing off the trees in here. We've got some banana trees growing in here. Coco plums. Elderberries. Wild grapes. We've done a lot of photo and fashion shoots in this particular area. They like this jungly type background, the big tall leather ferns and that.

“We also have the spider lily down there, if you can see it. The spider lily has a film in the center and the petals go upward. This one here next to it is a fragrant swamp lily. Can you see the brown stuff floating around? That is called periphyton. Periphyton is basically about 30 different types of algae. It really works a couple different ways out here. When it's floating like it is now, the animals all feed off it -- crawdads, tadpoles, minnows, whatever else. But also when we get into our drought years, when we get very little water or no water, they'll sit on the top of the soil where it works like a sponge and absorbs the night air moisture and actually keeps the soil from blowing away. I'm sure there probably are more technical terms for the use and benefit of it, but that's kind of the simplest form that I can explain it in.”

In 1989 Congress passed the Everglades Protection and Expansion Act, which called for the government to purchase and fold into the national park 107,000 acres of the eastern half of the Shark River Slough. This land includes all the airboat concessions on the Tamiami Trail, Coopertown among them.

Kennon says at the time the act was signed, the superintendent of Everglades National Park promised him his concession would be grandfathered in with the purchase. Coopertown airboat tours could continue up to the day Kennon retired. Then the property would revert to the government. In 1994, though, under the administration of a different park superintendent, Kennon claims he was informed that no grandfather clause existed.

The government is offering compensation for his property but not for his business, Kennon says. He won't divulge the details of the settlement he's been offered, except to say it will only be enough to cover his relocation expenses. Several of his neighbors already have been bought out. The proprietor of one airboat concession moved up north. The owner of a nearby bait and tackle shop sold out and took a job at Home Depot. Kennon estimates that 80 percent of the park extension has already been acquired.

“I've taken most of the appraisers out to each of the different areas,” Kennon says. “The tax people don't know where these places are at, so it's easier for me to take them 'cause they can give me an idea of location and I can take them right to it. It's kind of a shame. It's kind of like taking the enemy out. The people are just doing a job; that's the way you have to look at it. I'd rather take 'em out so they know exactly what they're doing rather than making Mickey Mouse guesses.”

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?”

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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