For the first time in years, Joe Maffo learned of an alligator in need of removal but could not do anything about it, he said Thursday.
The gator was struck by a car along U.S. 278 in Bluffton early Thursday and remained in the median near Rose Hill for several hours, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report. Ordinarily, Maffo's company, Critter Management, would have picked up the animal on behalf of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
But the company's contract was terminated last week, according to DNR wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal.
An investigation found Maffo broke department protocol May 31 when he relocated a nuisance gator from William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head Island to the New River in Jasper County, Harrigal said.
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Because he "failed to follow protocol," Maffo can no longer represent the department, Harrigal said.
It was the second time Maffo had caught and released the 12-foot gator, known locally as Big Al. The animal was more than 50 years old and weighed more than 1,000 pounds, according to Maffo's estimate, making it the largest free gator he had seen.
"I try to do the right thing all the time, and I just made a poor judgment call," Maffo said Thursday. "In my eyes, it was spectacular to see something that big, that massive, to live that long of a life, and it was just overwhelming to see."
Maffo can still wrangle gators, as long as his clients secure a tag from DNR themselves, Harrigal said. The process is quick, Maffo says, and simply involves a phone call to DNR officials, who would give the individual permission to remove the gator and then fax a tag for its disposal.
However, that was not always the process clients would follow with Critter Management, Harrigal learned when DNR officials met with Maffo to discuss the Big Al incident.
Harrigal said he believed Maffo misunderstood that he should not use his spare tags to harvest animals in non-emergency situations on Hilton Head Island's public lands without direction from DNR. During their meeting, Maffo explained that he had done so several times, though not on May 31 when he caught Big Al, Harrigal said. It was a minor issue but one that violated department protocol, Harrigal said.
To ensure the Town of Hilton Head Island still has flexibility in harvesting gators, it has requested and received five spare tags of its own, Harrigal said.
To replace Critter Management, DNR has extended contracts for emergency work to Beaufort-based Tracks Wildlife Control and Hardeeville resident Bill Smith, Harrigal said.
It was not clear Thursday how long their contracts will last, though Critter Management plans to apply again in 2015, company general manager Chris Kraycar said.
For now, it's business as usual for Maffo, who spent Thursday at the Coastal Discovery Museum educating families about the snakes, turtles and juvenile gators he has collected.
"I'm still a trapper," he said. "I'm just not the No. 1 trapper for the state anymore."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.