THOMSON — John Gillis is a problem-solver. He solves big, toothy problems of the reptilian sort that sometimes snatch pets or livestock before disappearing under murky water for long periods of time.
Even Gillis will admit the majority of the alligators he captures and removes from private property from Richmond to Screven counties for the Department of Natural Resources are seldom the monsters they are painted to be.
“A lot of times, when he gets called about a nuisance gator, it isn’t that it has done anything,” said his wife, Denise. “Sometimes it’s just an alligator being an alligator. They aren’t evil.”
Still, no one can blame a property owner for not wanting an ambush predator like the American alligator, which can grow more than 13 feet long, weigh nearly 800 pounds, and appear and disappear completely, silently at the water’s edge.
That’s why Gillis was hired in May to take over as the region’s agent trapper for nuisance alligators. Since then, he has caught and dispatched 17 alligators and relocated several smaller, less-threatening ones to friendlier waters.
Gillis, originally from south Georgia, first started hunting alligators with his brother, a DNR agent who fell into the position of nuisance alligator-removal in the Vidalia, Ga., area.
Gillis had a number of successful hunts before landing the job, which pays only in allowing the trapper to keep the skins and meat.
In the late 1980s, alligator skins went for as much as $80 a foot, Gillis said, but today a skin goes for more like $10 a foot.
“You don’t do this for the money,” he said. “To sell the meat, you have to have a seafood license and have a way to preserve the meat.”
The previous trapper was based out of Dublin, so Gillis is better located for the district, which covers McDuffie, Warren, Jefferson, Glascock, Columbia, Burke, Richmond, Jenkins and Screven counties.
I.B. Parnell, the acting regional supervisor for game management, said the district probably gets around 50 nuisance alligator calls a year. He guesses about 20 a year qualify for removal.
“I can tell you, it’s a lot easier for me to justify sending him out,” Parnell said. “When you send a man from Dublin to Augusta to catch a 5-foot gator he’s losing money hand over fist ... And John was by far our most qualified candidate. I feel good having such a competent individual so close by that enjoys the work and seems to deal so well with the public.”
Gillis was called when a large alligator delayed the speed boat races on the Savannah River about a month ago, but it had been run off by the time he arrived.
Some of the biggest alligators he has caught this year have been from fishing ponds open to the public bordering Phinizy Swamp. He captured several more than 10-feet long.
While in an Augusta pond, he was looking one direction when Denise saw a 10-plus-footer silently rise and float just to the side of their boat.
“She came out with the line from Jaws, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ ” Gillis said and laughed. “By the time I turned around it had disappeared.”
Gillis attempts to catch all of his alligators live. Then he takes them back home where he dispatches them, or puts the smaller, less aggressive ones aside for relocation.
“I think they get a bad rap,” Denise said. “Most of the time when there is a problem alligator, it’s partly humans’ fault. They’ve been feeding them or moving into their environment. I think most people are pretty ignorant about them.”
Then there are gators like the one Gillis was called out to deal with in Jenkins County last month.
“A guy who has about 50 cows noticed that a couple of calves were missing,” Gillis said. “He assumed that they had been lost to coyotes or something. But when his Labrador, a big family pet, turned up missing, he
started looking around the farm. He found part of the dog floating in a pond where his cattle
“There were all these bones on the bottom of the pond. ... This farmer has small children, so he told everyone to stay away from the pond.”
The rancher called DNR despite no one having seen an alligator.
“As soon as I got there, we saw a bubble trail,” Gillis said. “And after a couple of minutes it came on up. It was a big one that had just gotten used to animals coming down to drink there at the edge of the pond. It wasn’t scared of me at all.
It was 9 feet, 4 inches and weighed 272 pounds.
After taking it in and cleaning it, Gillis found evidence of the animals in the gator’s stomach.
Gillis said he has taken some gators from community ponds in Richmond County and has dealt with one other animal that took several pets.
“Most calls come from someone who sees an alligator in their pond and they just don’t want him there,” Parnell said. “Maybe they have cows or dogs or geese or children or whatever who use the pond, and they just don’t want the alligator there.”
“A landowner contacts the region (DNR) office to report that he has a problem alligator that he would like to have removed,” Parnell said. “We talk about it and I question them about how big it is. Then, nine times out of 10, we send an agent out to confirm that they do have an alligator of that size. I can tell you, not all 5-foot gators are created equal. Some people think they have a monster, and it turns out to be a 4-footer.”
Gillis gets sent out on an official call only if the reptile is more than 4-feet long.
“What most people don’t realize is that alligators below 4 feet, really up to 6 feet, are not usually any kind of threat to people,” Parnell said. “A 4-foot gator is going to eat tadpoles, frogs, lizards, snakes and whatever dead things they can find floating in the water. Their mouths aren’t made to bite off and chew food. Whatever they eat, they have to eat whole.”
And that’s nothing much bigger than a fist, he said.
That’s why DNR doesn’t consider anything smaller than 4 feet to be a nuisance that requires a trapper to remove and dispatch it.
“If the property owner doesn’t want it in their pond, and it’s that small, then we suggest they hire a nuisance wildlife professional to remove it,” Parnell said. “Our trapper could remove it, but it isn’t really worth his time for what he’ll make off of it.”
If the property owner wants to pay him to remove the animal, they can.
“When they get up to 5 to 7 feet, they may be able to handle wading birds like herons,” Parnell said. “Once they get some size to them, they may be able to grab something bigger that’s dead and rotten and spin so that they can tear off pieces they can swallow. But until they get pretty big, they have to wait on them to rot.
“But it really has to be a good-sized alligator before it can take something the size of a beaver or a wild goose,” Parnell said. “They just aren’t the evil critter they’re made out to be. They really do a great job of cleaning up your pond.”
If the reptile is determined to be more than 4 feet long and a
sufficient nuisance, DNR contacts a trapper such as Gillis, who makes arrangements with the property owner to get access to the area where the animal is likely to be.
The DNR office issues a unique tag for the animal. Once it is trapped and killed, free of charge to the landowner, the tag is attached to its tail, the appropriate paperwork is turned in and a new tag replaces that one that indicates the hide and meat were legally taken.
Gillis prefers a hand-tossed treble hook and strong cord or rope. He has a variety of hooks, the largest of which is about the size of a baseball.
Once snagged, he works the animal until it gets tired and then he ties it up, tapes the mouth closed with black electrician’s tape and loads it in the boat.
Once he gets them to land he wraps them in a wet towel and ices them down so they are more lethargic for the ride home. They are not dispatched until he gets them to his cleaning station.
“And once you’ve snagged one, shot it and gotten it in the boat, never assume that it’s dead, just because it has been still for a long time.”
As a state-sponsored trapper, Gillis is allowed some methods regular hunters are not. His hunting kit includes equipment designed especially for alligators in addition to lines normally used for deep-sea fishing, hand-made poles with harpoon tips, bouys with bite marks in them from past encounters, beaver and black bear snares.
Unlike the average hunter, Gillis can set out baited traps for problem gators that are wary of people.
These days, Denise goes with him on nearly every call.
“We’ve been together so long, I know what he needs and help him with the equipment,” she said.
“She’s my eyes and ears,” he said. “I’m color blind and so when we are out looking for them at night she can tell me if those lights shining back are red or green.”
Alligator eyes shine red in spotlights, he said.
“At first I really didn’t want him to be out there by himself,” she said. “I mean, if he was going out there, I didn’t want to be home worrying about him, not knowing if he was all right.”
“And we live and work together,” he said. At their day job, the couple manage Sweetwater Plantation Farms LLC just south of Thomson. “We’re together all the time. And it’s good to have an extra set of eyes and ears out there with you, an extra set of hands to hold a light.”