Monday, October 22, 2007

Charlie's Eden

by Michael D. Wolok

On a lark, I decided to investigate the shoreline due east from the University of Miami. In my wandering, I stumbled upon a park some Miamians know, some Miamians never heard of, and some Miamians only think they know.

After strolling a short distance into the park, I came across three spacious ponds linked by two inlets. Overhung with trees, the inlets appeared like portals to other worlds. Surrounded by different terrain and possessing its own unique set of inhabitants, each pond was another world. The terrain varied from wide-open fields of lush green grass speckled with palm trees, gumbo-limbo and banyan, to a forest of gnarled oaks, to hardwood hammocks, to tall saw grass.

Traipsing around these ponds, I spotted on a distant embankment a nine-and-a-half foot green monster—popularly known as an alligator. With closed eyelids, it lay motionless steeping in the sun's rays. Plopped in the middle of this pristine park, it paradoxically seemed at once both out of place and right at home.

Two inclinations struggled for supremacy: one, advance closer to better observe this oddity; two, get the "H" out of there to protect my hide. The gator's hypnotic stillness and shut eyelids coaxed my feet a few steps forward—still leaving an expanse of some twenty-odd feet between us.

I stood in a trance, gazing at the freakish creature. Then I swung around it, as if I were affixed to the moving leg of a drafting compass, the stationary leg resting on the gator. An equilibrium between fear and curiosity set the distance between us. When I finally decided to leave and took a step away, the alligator comically popped-open his eyelids, as if he had been aware of my presence all along. I departed with a smile.

Alligator Charlie

This park piqued my senses, and I would return to it again and again. Each new visit bequeathed novel gifts. Once after a hard rain, a flock of snow-white ibises blanketed a patch of land. With their long, curved, bright-red bills, they probed the soil. A family of gallinules—duck-like birds with beaks resembling orange and yellow Halloween candy—swam the ponds. And in the palm trees, blue jays skirmished with red-bellied woodpeckers for berries.

The props of the mangrove trees were shot with an assortment of birds who fished the ponds' rich waters. A yellow-crowned night heron (whose heads are striped with a distinctive black-and-white band) inhabited the middle pond. And an ever-present Little Green Heron exploited a tree limb over the edge of the south pond to snatch fish. Though seemingly neckless, Little Green Herons humorously can, at any time, pop-out a long neck. Bird-watching seemed to be the most boring activity on earth until this park introduced me to large, strikingly patterned birds with intriguing behavior patterns.

A mom, a pop, and three trailing, waddling, baby raccoons made the rounds of the park's trash cans every night, exactly one-half hour before closing. Occasionally, a sinewy fox with dainty legs would trot into the picnic area. The raccoons, foxes and squirrels would often approach within a few feet to eat a morsel of food tossed to them.

Hordes of giant land crabs invaded the park, yearly. The crabs pocked the park with burrows—where they quickly retreated upon sensing any earth vibration. These crabs resembled alien creatures from another planet, lifted from a low-grade B movie: eyes at the ends of their antennae, brown fuzzy beards, legs that only worked sideways, and a strange, vertical mouth only a mother could love.

But the main attraction was the gator I had stumbled upon on my first visit. I'd circle the ponds searching for him. If I spied him my day was made, if not, I'd leave feeling empty. This alligator's presence was a sign of mankind's maturity and tolerance, a sign of mankind's ability to live in harmony with nature. He provided a magic "antidote to civilization." This gator and his serene Eden seemed remote from a speedy and greedy world inhabited by laser scanners, fax machines, and arbitrage. Peering at this prehistoric beast allowed me to drift to another epoch. Any moment, I expected a brontosaurus head to rise above the distant treetops. With this anachronism out-stretched on the bank of one of his primeval-looking ponds, such a sight would have seemed perfectly natural.

This gator, though, proffered an even greater incongruity than an ancient presence in a modern world. Had I met this gator in the Everglades or at a zoo, our meeting would not have been so peculiar. What made this gator exceptional, almost surreal, was that he meandered freely about in a very public park, in the middle of Miami—a park where children played, and people picnicked. Here was a free-roaming gator on human turf (or free-roaming humans on gator turf?), peacefully coexisting.

The "regulars"—those who visited the park often—informed me that the gator's name was Charlie, that he had resided at the park ever since people could remember. With fascination, I watched the regulars toss Charlie bread and chicken.

Charlie hung-out at two favorite haunts. In the first pond, he "tanned" at a specific site on the far bank. And when he had the munchies, he loitered at the southern edge of the third pond. Curiously, both these places were marked with a sign that read: "I'll bite the hand that feeds me!" followed by a supposed drawing of an alligator that looked more like a manatee; followed by the word, "Danger!" As if literate, Charlie rarely strayed far from either of these signs. Though, he did have a secluded place in the mangroves of the middle pond where he hid when he wished not to be disturbed.

Once, two young girls frolicking around the third pond sighted Charlie at the pond's edge. With scared giggles, they bounded onto a picnic table even though other children had formed a semicircle around him. Eventually, they descended, joining the crowd. Then they teased each other, playfully trying to push one another toward him.

There was a foolish child who dashed up to Charlie, threw stones in his face, and scampered away shouting, "He is coming after me, he is going to eat me!" Charlie, though, literally turned the other cheek, taking all abuse stoically. So far as I know, he never made an aggressive move toward any human1. When the taunting grew too great, he would, with a certain insouciance and savoir-faire, gracefully propel himself toward the center of the pond with a few slow swishes of his tail.

Charlie's south-end haunt was, also, a favorite spot for other park wildlife. When picnickers tossed bread into the pond, the crystal clear waters erupted in a vigorous boil as frenzied zebra fish rapaciously attacked the food in acts of plunder that would shame piranha. A whole loaf of bread disintegrated amid violent thrashing and sucking sounds in seconds. Foot-long snook and tarpon lunged at these fish creating explosive, startling splashes that sent everyone scurrying away from the shore, because they'd mistakenly be attributed to the arrival of a gator.

The slurping noises of the zebra fish attracted numerous painted turtles and a few shy, snapping turtles, which vied with the fish for the scraps. Enough commotion summoned Charlie, the king, who always made a slow, dignified, quiet approach.

In one of my first visits to this area, I witnessed something curious scooting about underwater. When it surfaced, it appeared to be a baby Loch Ness monster; closer examination, though, proved it, an anhinga. An anhinga (also, called a "darter" or "snake bird") is a bird with an average wingspan of two-feet, a long, snake-like neck, and the ability to dart around underwater. When an anhinga swims above the water, only its head and long neck are visible, its body strangely remains submerged—giving it that "Loch Ness Monster" appearance.

It became a familiar sight to see the anhinga spear fish beneath the water with its pointy beak, surface, climb onto its perch, flick its catch into the air, gulp it down, then hang its wings out to dry. Charlie, the anhinga, and the Little Green Heron formed a close-knit club that shared this corner of the pond: Charlie would surprisingly pay the anhinga no heed even when it would occasionally swim in front of his snout.

A man who passed by this site observed the turtles, the fish, the heron, the anhinga, and Charlie. He, also, witnessed a water snake wondrously slithering across the surface of the water, catching fish, taking the catch ashore in its mouth, and in plain view devouring it. He noticed that the animals acted nearly oblivious to man, as if enchanted. He then exclaimed, "Disney, eat your heart out!"

On a sweltering summer day, a formal wedding took place by the pond; tuxedos were de rigueur. An accordionist began playing, "Here comes the bride." Now, I can't exactly say that Charlie was a discriminating music critic, but he did like music. Music meant people and people meant food. So, you can guess who reverently pulled-up in the pond just behind the line of wedding guests.

The music continued to play, as Charlie was noticed, first by one guest—whose gaze was now transfixed over his shoulder at Charlie, instead of at the wedding couple—and then by another. Soon, all the guests were warily throwing furtive glances at Charlie.

Finally, the bride and groom noticed something amiss; they realized they were no longer the center of attention. One snickering guest silently pointed to Charlie. After a little discussion and a little nervous laughter, the procession shifted a tad away from Charlie and the pond, and the ceremony continued without further ado.

Then there was the time, I saw two elderly women strolling around the pond. Camouflaged in the tall saw grass, Charlie was resting peacefully at one of his favorite haunts. The two women were absorbed in conversation, not paying much attention where they were going, and they were on a direct collision course for Charlie. Standing on the opposite embankment, there was little I could do. I could almost hear the theme from Jaws playing in the background. At a separation of not more than five-feet, Charlie was—shall we say—noticed. With Olympic agility, the seniors quickly managed to distance themselves from Charlie; then gaped at him while alternately eyeing each other in amazement. They then laughed while gingerly negotiating their way around him.

In his time, Charlie endured quite a few fools and crazies. There was once a father who playfully dangled his two-year old daughter several feet above Charlie's nose while his petrified wife looked on in stunned horror. And there were reckless teenagers who threw coke bottles at Charlie as he floated in the center of a pond.

Perhaps, too, some might have considered me one of the crazies: for after a time, I fed Charlie out of my hand2, and pet his nose and back. His back felt surprisingly pliant and squished like the back of a frog, and his nose felt hard and hollow like papier-mâché.

In fact, I would occasionally put on "shows" for the picnickers. First, I'd toss a trail of marshmallows, a favorite alligator delight3into the pond. Charlie was keyed into the sound of splashing marshmallows. He'd follow the trail to shore, munching each marshmallow on his way. Gators like to wallow in the marsh, so it only stands to reason that they would like "marsh wallows" . . . olkay, so I'm no humorist. I guess Dave Barry at the Miami Herald can now rest easy, knowing I'm not about to take his day job anytime soon. Anyway, after Charlie arrived at the pond's edge, I'd set afloat a slightly used hamburger on a bun, I had scrounged from picnic leftovers. If Charlie was hungry, he devoured the hamburger, bun and all. If not, he'd nudge the bun away with his snout, and dive for the sinking hamburger.

Charlie prized barbecued spareribs and chicken above all: Jutting his head high out of the water, he crushed the bones with startlingly loud, chilling, bone-crunching sounds—which invariably evoked "oohs" and "aahs" from the picnickers. Then I'd call him to shore and feed him a package of hot dogs, one-at-a-time, right out of my hand.

My actions were predicated on hundreds of hours observing Charlie. During the first year, I kept my distance. But every time I spotted him, I'd summon my courage and charily approach a tad closer. Then one day while he was sunning himself, I approached too close. Like a lightning bolt, he exploded into the water generating a thundering splash, and in fractions of a second was gazing at me from the center of the pond. I, then, realized Charlie was more afraid of me, than I, of him. Charlie appeared to act wary and apprehensive just like feral cats I have been known to rescue and tame4.

Whenever Charlie was in the vicinity of humans, he moved with extreme caution and hesitancy. When I first fed him hot dogs on plate by the pond's edge, he wouldn't approach the plate if I was nearby. Only after I moved far away, would he approach the plate. Then he would select a single hot dog from the pile, swim to the middle of the pond with it hanging-off the side of his mouth like a Groucho Marx cigar. Only then would he eat it. He repeated this ritual with each hot dog. However, each time I returned to the park, he allowed me to stand a little closer to the plate. Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to eat the hot dogs while I stood nearby.

Then I fed him one hot dog skewered on a very, very long branch. With great care, he removed the hot dog from the branch, and ate it. After many such feedings, I gradually reduced the length of the branch, till finally I felt comfortable feeding him out of my hand. Still, I gave Charlie a lot of respect, and was always on full guard. But after a time, I came to believe Charlie viewed me no differently than the feral cats I've rescued and tamed.

Because of Charlie, I made a study of alligators and learned: Alligators have different personalities; they can be house pets to at least four-and-a-half feet; they can be housebroken and taught tricks; and they can recognize a human who hasn't been seen for two years5. This is not the stereotypical image promoted by the media. Nor is this the stereotypical image most people have of gators. As it turns out, gators are not aggressive, purely instinctual creatures with pea-sized brains, as they are often characterized or portrayed. In fact, alligators and crocodiles do not share the same temperament: Crocodiles are often aggressive, alligators generally are not6. One, notable exception to this rule is a mother alligator defending her young.

The late Rube Allyn (no relation to Rube Goldberg), former head of The Great Outdoor Publishing Company, and an alligator expert once said: "An alligator really compares to the cow of our domestic animals. A human could jump in the same pond with a dozen alligators and never get a scratch. Alligators are retiring . . . [but there are] all kinds of animal personalities . . ."7

As a matter of fact, at Everglades National Park, the US National Parks Service conducts public, nature treks through thigh-deep, wild-gator infested marsh. The marsh near Shark River Valley loop Road is literally teaming with hundreds of wild gators. Gators are visible all along the road. Yet, children are allowed to go on these marsh tours and hike alone on this road. The US Parks Service would not do this, if alligators posed the threat to humans that most people suppose.

In Florida, it is a misdemeanor to molest an alligator. Now, I know that there are those of you (particularly, Dave Barry) out there who are wondering: "Who in the world would be dumb enough or perverted enough to try to molest a gator?" "All kidding aside," feeding an alligator is construed under Florida statute as gator molestation. And as laws go, it's a pretty good law. When alligators are fed, they can lose their fear of man, and like the bears at Yellowstone National Park can become a nuisance, and even a hazard, if they begin to beg for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—or worse yet, don't beg, just take.

In this particular case, I was not aware of the state law when I fed Charlie. Also, I knew he had been fed for years and was still being fed by countless others, and had never become a nuisance. Moreover, Charlie always had a cornucopia of food in the pond. It still wasn't right, and I don't excuse myself, but I merely offer mitigating circumstances. We all have our vices, mine was feeding Charlie.

After five years of visiting the park on a regular basis, I became occupied with personal matters and returned infrequently. When I did return, I noticed the absence of the Little Green Heron, the anhinga, and Charlie. I asked the regulars, but no one knew a thing.

Adjoining Charlie's park lay the largest botanical garden in the world. Charlie often visited this garden, and its eight ponds—admittedly without paying its five-dollar admission.

The caretaker—a simple, good-natured, cheerful fellow—lives in a coral house on the premises. During the day, he patrols the garden by bicycle. At closing time, he drives a cart along the garden path to ensure the park is empty.

One day, I visited the garden, late. As closing time drew near, the caretaker offered to take me in his cart to the front gate. While riding with him, I apprehensively queried about the local gator.

The caretaker replied that he had always felt uncomfortable with gators in the garden's ponds, that he believed gators were a constant threat and danger. He said sometime last September8 in the early morning, he saw a gator laying on a concrete path by one of the garden's ponds, and knew that visitors often fed this gator. He told me, he called the Florida Freshwater and Game Commission to dispose of the "nuisance" alligator, and they did. In my alligator studies, I learned it is quite normal for alligators—which are cold-blooded—to warm themselves on sun-drenched slabs of rock (indistinguishable to an alligator from a concrete path) during the hours following sunrise9.

I called the Freshwater and Game Commission, and spoke to Lieutenant Dick Lawrence, a wildlife officer. He told me that he remembered the incident. He said that when a ranger went out to the garden, the gator was found in one of the ponds, not on the path. But with alligators no longer considered an endangered species, the Freshwater and Game Commission will destroy just about any gator against whom there is a complaint—without determining whether or not it's really a nuisance gator. Officer Lawrence said he had to act on dubious complaints, because if he didn't, and perchance, one of those alligators attacked someone, it would be his hide.

In his day, Charlie brought happiness, education, and unexpected pleasure to thousands. A steady stream of first-timers, "bumped" into Charlie. Some considered him ugly and repulsive, others considered him majestic and beautiful.

Many were incredulous that he could be a fixture at a park as public as this. There were many who stood not more than ten-feet from Charlie, and nonchalantly commented what a good meal he would make or what a nice pair of shoes Charlie would make, even as I would be feeding him out of my hand. If Charlie had wanted, he could easily have had these cold-blooded louts for lunch. It made me wonder which creature was less civilized, the alligator who didn't eat humans or humans who would eat a wondrous, semi-tame alligator. The irony of the situation was never lost on me.

Most visitors found Charlie fascinating. Most derived uncommon satisfaction from being able to walk-up to Charlie, and scrutinize at close range his unusual features, like the flaps of his ears and his valve-like nostrils. For most, he transformed what otherwise would have been a routine day at the park into an exceptionally rewarding experience.

And most discovered, what Seminole alligator wrestlers know, but keep secret: Alligators are generally not feisty or ferocious, and rarely have it in for humans. Alligators would rather relax in the hot sun, than bite the rump of some buxom blond — as depicted on so many Florida postcards. With millions of gators out there, there are bound to be some that are dangerous, but the same can, also, be said in no small measure for homo-sapiens. Personally, I've found humans to be much less trustworthy, and a lot more aggressive and dangerous than alligators.

These days, I very seldom visit my idyllic paradise, Matheson Hammock Park. It now seems lifeless and sterile. It's just not the same—not without the little Green Heron, the anhinga, and especially not without my prehistoric friend, Charlie, who warmed and tickled the cockles of my heart10.


1 Charlie did chase and catch dogs, which for good reason were not allowed in the park. Fortunately, I just heard about such apocryphal incidents, and never witnessed such an occurrence. Though, generally lethargic, alligators can sprint on land, up to thirty-miles per hour to catch prey. Though, Charlie may have caught dogs, he never attacked a child—which is all the more remarkable since so many small children played at the pond's edge where Charlie used to hang-out and was fed by countless picnickers. Clearly, Charlie distinguished dogs and small children, and he did not have children on his menu. That in ten or more years, Charlie never made an aggressive move toward any human, suggests he was really never a threat to humans.

2 This was before I knew that such conduct was illegal and caused the destruction of alligators. I presume the statute of limitations for this crime was up over a decade ago.

3 Margerie Stoneman Douglas, the great matriarch of the Everglades, was known to toss marshmallows to gators.

4 Please support Miami's Cat Network, The Cat Network, Inc., P.O. Box 593026, Miami, FL 33159-3026, ,; and Sad Sack in Palm Beach, which has helped me find good homes for dozens of dogs rescued from Miami streets.

5 Dick Bothwell, The Great Outdoors Book Of Alligators And Other Crocodilia, (St. Petersburg, Florida: Great Outdoors Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 31, 57-59.

6 There are more people killed in Florida each year by lightning, than in the last hundred years by alligators.

7 Ibid., p. 31.

8 I wrote this more than a decade ago. Today, all alligators found to like marshmallows are destroyed. New York Times; National Desk; June 9, 2002, Sunday; In Florida, a Bold Alligator Is a Dead One by Rick Bragg (NYT) Late Edition — Final, Section 1, Page 1, Column 2. The title of this article is really a misnomer. Based on the article's contents, the article should be titled In Florida, a Friendly Alligator Is a Dead One. I don't believe that liking marshmallows is a sign that an alligator is dangerous. And I don't believe most fed alligators are dangerous. I think people confuse tame behavior with aggressive behavior. Bears become angry and aggressive, if you refuse them food. I believe this is the case with alligators. Moreover, I believe that alligators that have plenty of natural food sources can be taught not to come out of the water and beg for food.

9 Ibid., p. 7.

10 I am writing this footnote more than fifteen years after I first wrote Charlie's Eden. After my encounter with Matheson Hammock, I fortuitously discovered another jewel in the Miami-Dade County Park system, Greynold's Park. Nature photographers, bird watchers, and nature lovers from all over the world came to this park to visit its rookery. Hundreds of egrets, thousands of ibises, and many other different species of birds came to this park to breed, nest, and raise their young. Nowhere else in the world were humans able to get so close to nesting water birds.

In breeding season, water birds develop fanciful, colorful plumage. Ironically, few people from Dade County even knew this rookery existed. Whenever, I saw someone with a camera, binoculars, or just seeming to take pleasure in the rookery, I would introduce myself, and ask them where they were from. They came from all over the United States, from Germany, from Belgium and from the Netherlands. There were photographers from National Geographic. Queer as this may be, not a one ever identified himself as a local.

Hurricane Andrew blew debris into the narrow passages that connected the ponds to canals that feed into the ocean. The park manager couldn't get permission to clear the passages. Fertilizer runoff from an adjacent golf course feed the algae in the stagnant pond waters. The ponds "algaefied": algae bloomed in the ponds, and spread across their surface. The "algaefication" of the ponds completely concealed the fish beneath the water's surface, preventing water birds from catching them—water birds need to see fish in order to catch them.

Finally, water birds need to have an immediate source of food when they have young to protect and feed. They can't afford to leave the vicinity of their nests to search for food as they might do otherwise. And they need a nearby food source to be able to constantly feed their young. Today, the rookery is dead, and the ponds are filled with decaying, putrefying organic matter. Though, Miami-Dade County parks did do some work clearing the inlets a few years ago.

The Miami-Dade County park system does not know why the rookery died, but does not consider it a great loss. After all, it never brought in the kind of revenue the adjacent golf course or county beach parks brought and bring in. The head of the Miami-Dade County park system spoke the truth when he told me that as far as Miami-Dade County parks went, Greynold's rookery was greatly under-utilized by local residents. He insisted that he had to allocate the most funds to the parks that are most utilized and produce the most revenue.

Not a single egret has nested in Greynold's park in over eight years. Greynold's rookery probably existed for hundreds of years. I thought it would be around for a long time to come. I had just begun taking amazing photographs at the rookery when suddenly there were no birds to photograph, and the waters began to stink.

Miami's Audubon Society claimed Greynold's rookery was "off their radar screen," since it is located in North Dade, and most of their members are located in South Dade. They, further, said the Greynold's birds are probably better off in the Everglades, anyway. I thought the birds at Greynold's park had an ideal location that would be hard to match anywhere else. The islands of Greynold's park offered nesting young protection not found in the Everglades. And the clear, brackish waters that flowed in Greynold's park were teaming with fish. There are no feeding grounds like this in the Everglades. Anyway, I don't know the fate of Greynold's birds. But I do know that their loss at Greynold's park is a great loss for nature-lovers and bird-watchers the world over, if not a loss for Miami locals.


loree said...

i liked it it was so cute

loree said...

i liked it it was so cute

Anonymous said...

Nice story! It's awful about what happened to the rookery and Charlie, though. Humans can be very callous.