Jesse Kennon squats silently at the edge of a three-seater airboat, his wavy, silver ponytail dangling as his thin-rimmed glasses slip down his sweaty pink nose. It's 10 p.m. on a Saturday. We're in the shallow waters of the River of Grass on an idle airboat. And other than the supersonic had-to-have-been-crafted-by-the-sun flashlight that shines into the water, the night is pitch-black.
Trapped in the brackish water beneath the hard metal of our boat is a scaly, swamp-lily-licked, eight-foot-long alligator. Her golden eyes, flecked with green, are wide with rage as Kennon twists a rusted, homemade wire noose around her neck.
Then the gator lets out an eerie growl like something that would come out of a big black bear. As the 68-year-old trapper attempts to pull the mini-Godzilla closer, she violently whips her head sideways, bashing it concussion-style against the side of the boat. I feel the shaking of the deck in my feet; then pure adrenaline makes its way up my spine.
"The ones that end up with the golden eyes are the most challenging," Kennon says in his slight Southern twang. "They've got personality, a spark. Every one that I've ever handled is smart, learns how to counter your moves. The ones with all black or gray eyes just don't have the same spirit."
As he attempts to haul the gator in, she begins to thrash, trying to twirl her body like a torpedo. In response, Kennon just smiles. "It's not the animals you've got to be afraid of," he says. "It's the humans."
But it's because of humans' curiosity about animals that Kennon's business, Coopertown Airboat Rides and Restaurant, came to be. Soon after World War II, his cousin, John Cooper, and two brothers left their home in White Oak, Missouri. They headed south to the Tamiami Trail in search of — what else? — frogs.
Cooper bought a small frogging boat he'd park on the East-West Canal, 11 miles west of Florida's Turnpike on the south side of Eighth Street, to sell the amphibians' legs to passing tourists. But the out-of-towners were just as intrigued by Cooper's boat as by the fresh-caught meat. They asked for rides to explore the rich marshlands.
This eventually led to Cooper building a larger boat. Then, in 1945, Coopertown became one of the first commercial airboat tours in the Glades. In the years since, its fried frogs' legs restaurant and grounds have been graced by Doris Day, Mickey Mantle, Chuck Norris, Vogue, GQ, Victoria's Secret, CSI: Miami (in which Kennon has a brief cameo in the first minute of the first episode), and most important, JoJo, their 25-year-old resident gator who has starred in Lubriderm and Pringles commercials.
"You can say it's our family's homestead," says Kennon, who, as a child, came down to the Glades often; learning to drive an airboat at age 7 and catch gators with his bare hands as a teen. And though Kennon's done many things with his life — Navy sailor, general contractor, freight broker — he has always heard the call of the wild. During the '60s, he was stuck in an office for eight years as an account executive of advertising and sales promotion in California, but he still took his boss bear hunting in the High Sierra.
"He was all excited about using this fancy $10,000 specialty rifle he had bought just for the trip," explains Kennon. "So, I get him all set up on a black bear, he hits it, but he doesn't hit it clean. So, the bear starts running at him."
The executive tried to set up for a second shot, but was having a hard time. "And I'm standing to the side, the bear's coming, the boss keeps trying to fire, but ends up jamming his gun."
Fearing for his life, the exec threw the gun at the charging beast's head. Kennon grabbed a loaded .30-30 Winchester. "I just started pumping, blew his shoulders out from under him until he dropped." Of the boss, Kennon says with a chuckle: "He was so in shock, I'm surprised he didn't have a coronary."
So, naturally, when John Cooper retired in 1981, Kennon took over the business. But Kennon isn't just a hunter. He's a tender soul who enjoys the musical stylings of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand. He's seen Mama Mia! three times at the Jackie Gleason Theater and enjoys a nice glass of white wine.
He's even a little soft around the corners when hunting something as ferocious as a gator. He won't kill anything under 12 feet long. "It's illegal to catch anything under four feet and six to eight really isn't that much larger. Plus those at that size are usually 12 to 20 years old and are ripe for breeding." And he isn't a fan of crossbows. "I like to give gators a fighting chance... using a crossbow is taking the challenge out of it. If they're not hooked and shot in deep water they just sink... an arrow can puncture the gator anywhere and holes devalue the hide." Instead he prefers treble hooks, harpoons, nooses, deep sea rods, and bang sticks that are placed behind the gator's head and aimed directly at their brain for an instant, clean, and guaranteed death.
Funny thing is, you can't eat the alligators caught in the southern Glades. They're contaminated by poisonous mercury. So when I order a deliciously greasy basket full of fried alligator nuggets and frog legs before going to hunt, Kennon tells me they're shipped in from a farm in Sebring, Florida. Then he grabs a huge gator head that's mounted on the wall and clutches it.
"This one was 74 years old when I killed him. He was 15 feet long and weighed 1,400 pounds." He places the epic head on a table in front of us. "Someone had shot this particular gator from long range and broke his nostril, so he couldn't submerge and feed under water or he'd drown. Therefore, he had to feed along the shoreline, so he became a nuisance. Otherwise, something this big, I wouldn't kill. I'd be more interested in seeing how big and old he'd get. But, because of humans, he became a dangerous animal." He pauses for a moment and stares down at his trophy. "He could've probably taken down a cow."
Staring into this dead gator's huge, black, marble eyes, I freeze like Kennon's old boss in the presence of a pissed-off bear. We're about to mount an airboat to catch, with our bare hands, a descendant of the dinosaurs. Kennon holds up what he considers to be the most important tool in catching the king of the reptiles — a roll of electrical tape.
Has he been sampling magic mushrooms?
"You'd be surprised. Sometimes a gator may not be as dead as you think it is. Although you just shot it in the head, you may just have paralyzed it; the bullet can go off to the side just a little bit. So, always tape his mouth."
Yeah, OK. Sure.
"A friend of mine, a trapper agent for many years for the state, got a call off Alligator Alley that a gator had been run over. When he found it, the head was pretty much smashed, so he threw it in the truck and drove home. When he opened the camper shell, the damn gator jumped at him, almost getting him in the head. Today he has about six holes right up his arm."
A few minutes later, Kennan, his son Doyle, and I are zipping through sawgrass on an airboat in the dark. Then we stop. Kennon, who's wearing a hat mounted with a high-beam flashlight, points to something in the water. "See those red glowing eyes?" he asks.
I can't see a thing. He rushes to the edge of his boat and scoops up a baby gator — no more then eight inches long. He places the tiny creature in my hand, showing me how to wrap my thumb around its neck so it doesn't nip.
"Mama's probably nearby."
And she is. He hands me the hat with the light and we ride the boat alongside her. Kennon catches her with his wire noose. Then we trap her body under the boat, and he restrains her massive jaw with another noose, this one made of rope.
"She's starting to spin," Kennon says, voice rising slightly. He yells to Doyle, a middle-aged man with a bushy white beard and thick black eyebrows, who comes to help. As the two men try to halt the reptilian whirlpool, Kennon barks to me:
"Keep the light in her eyes!"
A thousand mosquitoes buzz by, perch on my nose, and bite my cheeks. The men slip the noose around the gator's jaw and pull it closed. Then they lift her from the water and place her on the boat. Doyle mounts her as Kennon wraps her mouth with electrical tape.
As the gator jerks about, Kennon looks up at me and questions, "How's that for a rush?"