A petition aimed at reinstating a Hilton Head Island alligator wrangler's contract with the state has the support of hundreds of people, including the island's animal shelter.
Joe Maffo's company, Critter Management, had its contract to remove alligators terminated by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in late June. The DNR said Maffo broke protocol May 31 by relocating a 12-foot-long alligator, known locally as "Big Al," from Hilton Head instead of killing it.
The petition, started online July 4 by Hilton Head resident Diane Williams, had 680 signatures as of 4 p.m. Wednesday. It asks DNR to reinstate Critter Management's contract to capture nuisance alligators.
On Tuesday, the Hilton Head Island Humane Association announced its support for Maffo and the petition, which is on the Care2.com website at http://bit.ly/1toSikf. Williams' name was listed as the petition's author, but contact information for her was unavailable.
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Humane Association executive director Franny Gerthoffer said there was "no question" of supporting Maffo. Gerthoffer said Maffo has been a valuable member of the community, educating locals about animals in addition to trapping them.
"He's been a wonderful part of our organization for many years," Gerthoffer said.
Former Humane Association board member Bobbi Helton brought the petition to the association after learning of it through Critter Management, she said. Helton wanted to start a petition, but found out one had already begun. Maffo said he did not know who started it.
Since sending the petition to the Humane Association and posting it at the Litter Box, the association's thrift store, names were "flying in," Helton said.
"Joe is such an asset to this community," she said. "He has compassion and concern for these animals. He always uses common sense. Big Al did not need to be killed."
The gator was over 50 years old and weighed over 1,000 pounds, making it the largest free alligator Maffo said he had seen.
Maffo said he's received an outpouring of support from locals since the DNR decision was announced. He acknowledged he needed to be punished for breaking DNR protocol, but said killing the gator was a line he could not cross.
"I made a judgment call, and it broke protocol," he said. "I certainly didn't mean to anger or offend anyone."
The termination of his contract means Maffo cannot represent DNR, but can still relocate or remove alligators from private areas, such as gated communities, or municipal areas, DNR wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal said. Clients now have to first obtain a tag from DNR before Maffo can remove an alligator.
Harrigal said he was unsure if DNR would respond to the petition, but said it was possible for the department to re-enter discussions with Critter Management. Maffo said he understood the termination to mean he could still apply for a contract with DNR in 2015.
Harrigal referred further questions about possible reinstatement to Emily Cope, DNR's deputy director of the wildlife and freshwater fisheries division. Attempts to reach Cope for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Maffo's relocation of Big Al to the New River violated DNR protocol because the gator was determined to be a nuisance. Big Al was deemed a nuisance because he had made his way into the road and was a hazard to traffic, Harrigal said in June.
Maffo's decision to move the gator to the New River angered some residents in that area, who were concerned it could harm people using the river.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.