In a recent conversation with a S.C. Department of Natural Resources, we were told that alligator wranglers are allowed leniency in following the agency's nuisance rule to make judgment calls based on their expertise.
"It's a nuisance rule, not a law," said Robert McCullough, a DNR spokesman. "We give (wranglers) leeway to determine what is best. They're on the scene."
That's why we're surprised with the agency's arguably harsh decision to cancel its contract with wrangler Joe Maffo of Critter Management. Maffo is a well-known local who, in addition to trapping nuisance gators for DNR, individuals and companies, teaches children about gators, snakes, turtles and other Lowcountry wildlife at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.
At issue was Maffo's decision to twice relocate instead of kill Big Al, a giant, beloved alligator that weighed more than 1,000 pounds and is thought to be about 50 years old. For years, residents and visitors alike have enjoyed watching the massive gator sun himself and swim in the lagoons bordering a Port Royal Plantation golf course. His striking size and constant presence earned him a nickname and even his own Facebook page five years ago.
According to residents, Big Al never showed signs of aggression. But when mating season came around each year, he sometimes crossed roads -- an activity that categorized him as a nuisance under a strict reading of the DNR rule.
That rule is a good one, meant to protect the public. It requires that alligators that are fed by people, that disrupt traffic or that repeatedly cross roads should be destroyed. As we've said before, we agree with that. The safety of humans should be DNR's top priority.
But wranglers are given leeway in interpreting the DNR rule since they're the gator experts who are on the scene. And in this particular case, the gator in question was well-known and was not a trouble maker. It strikes us that Maffo was taking into account that he wasn't dealing with a man eater.
A sizable chunk of the community supports Maffo's decision. A petition, started online July 4 by Hilton Head resident Diane Williams, had, at last count, nearly 700 signatures. It asks DNR to reinstate Critter Management's contract to capture nuisance alligators. And this week, the Hilton Head Island Humane Association also announced its support of Maffo and the petition drive.
It's unlikely that DNR will reconsider its decision. But we can all hope that it will consider Maffo for a license in 2015.
And we can all feel good, knowing that Big Al is likely still alive in the New River area, enjoying the sunny banks and the cool water of his new home. Let's hope he steers clear of roads.