Originally created 01/26/00

Okefenokee gator nears 14 feet long



WAYCROSS, Ga. -- When you're the biggest alligator in the swamp, you can pretty much hang out anywhere you want.

But Oscar, who measures 13 feet, 7 inches from snout to tail, is not only the biggest alligator in Okefenokee Swamp, but he also is likely the largest in Georgia and perhaps beyond, said Howard Hunt, curator of reptiles at Zoo Atlanta.

Officials at Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross say Oscar weighs 1,000 pounds. Mr. Hunt doesn't dispute that, but he said a 14-footer killed in Florida weighed 800 pounds.

Oscar's length is accurate, although nobody was brave enough to walk up and measure him, Mr. Hunt said.

"He was lying in the grass, and his nose made an impression in the grass. We marked where the tip of his tail was lying and measured from that spot to the pressed down spot in the grass," Mr. Hunt said.

The largest alligator on record is a 19-foot, 2-inch specimen found dead in Louisiana in 1902, Mr. Hunt said.

With the 14-footer having been killed, Mr. Hunt says Oscar could be the biggest -- at least in Georgia.

"I say Oscar's the biggest alligator in Georgia. Anyone who wants to dispute that, let me know," he said.

With his dominant size, Oscar likely could stake out any territory he wants in the vast Okefenokee Swamp.

Instead, he lolls around the park just as he has done for at least 54 years.

"He was here when the park opened in 1946," said Martin Bell, manager of the nonprofit park.

In winter, he holes up near the visitors center, staying beneath the water on the coldest days but coming up on warmer ones.

In the spring and fall he basks in the sun, sometimes across concrete walkways, oblivious to the stream of visitors.

"Some people think he's not real. They see him lying out, not moving," Mr. Bell said. "They come back in a couple of years and there's Oscar, lying in the same spot."

"He's almost ornamental," Mr. Hunt said.

There are times when Oscar gets pretty active, much to the sorrow of some dog owners, said Jimmy Walker, who managed the park from 1955 until April 1996.

"He caught two or three dogs. Dogs weren't allowed in the park, but some people would tie them to a tree in the parking lot," Mr. Walker recalled.

The problem is that the parking lot is bordered by canals, so old Oscar would swim up and find dinner tied to a tree, Mr. Walker said.

The oddest event might have been when a woman with a huge straw handbag sat down on the grass beside a canal where Oscar was basking, he said. The idea was for her husband to take her picture with Oscar floating in the background.

Mr. Walker said he passed by and warned them about getting too close to what is still a wild alligator.

"Just as I walked by I heard a commotion. I was so afraid I was going to see Oscar dragging her in the water, but he had that straw pocketbook," Mr. Walker said.

Oscar kept the handbag with all its contents, Mr. Walker said.

Except for those few incidents, Oscar causes no trouble, which is appropriate for the old-timer.

He was an adult in 1946, so there is no reason to doubt that his estimated age of 70 years isn't far off the mark, Mr. Hunt said.