Some people can't sleep if they know there's a spider in their house. Imagine being in Beaumont, Tex., and thinking that the largest alligator ever caught in the United States was on the loose there.
Fortunately, after a nerve-racking few days, that gator has been found.
It was a tense week for neighbors of Gator Country, the "largest alligator adventure park/sanctuary in Southeast Texas." The Beaumont facility, hard hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, found itself inundated by floodwaters again as the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda dumped 43 inches of rain in the area.
When the water finally started to recede Wednesday into Thursday, Big Tex — a 14-foot, 1,000-pound behemoth — was missing, along with roughly three dozen other gators. Adjacent neighborhoods went to sleep at night knowing the nation's largest alligator in captivity could be lurking nearby.
When there's an alligator on the loose, whom do you call? Jon Warner.
Warner runs the alligator program for Texas Parks and Wildlife. A Midwest native, Warner holds a PhD he earned for studying in Africa about how alligators can serve as indicators of an ecosystem's health. For the past several days, he has been keeping tabs on Big Tex.
"We were unsure he had even escaped," Warner said. "But when the water level went down, Big Tex wasn't there." Warner said that if the gator had left the premises, "he'd probably stay in the immediate vicinity." On Friday afternoon, Big Tex was found near a pond on the 15-acre sanctuary's property.
Gator Country confirmed he had been located early Friday afternoon and was "being moved back."
A number of small alligators are still missing, but those are "mostly just three-, four- and five-footers," Warner said. "They probably just swam over the fence."
Warner said Gator Country is at "80 percent capacity" in locating the reptiles that were initially reported missing after Imelda's drenching.
In the wake of major storms, it's not unusual for animals to wind up in places they wouldn't otherwise be. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, about 50 gators were captured after springing loose from Gator Country, the Beaumont Enterprise reported. Flooding had caused the water to rise above the four-foot fences.
In a separate incident, deputies had to wrangle one gator out of a house. A photo showed the animal lounging on a rug.
Imelda drew plenty of comparisons to Harvey as it walloped some of the same areas with severe flooding that stranded residents and triggered thousands of calls for help. The storm is blamed for at least five deaths, according to the Associated Press.
It was hard on the animals, too: The Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team spent days rescuing cattle and horses, according to the Houston Chronicle. Meanwhile, Houston's Fox 26 reported, officials at the Harris County Animal Shelter are urging the public to consider taking in animals to make room for others that were affected by the storm.
The search for Big Tex came during the height of Texas's alligator-hunting season, which runs from Sept. 10 through Sept. 30. "Everyone has to have special permits to hunt them," Warner said. Texas harvests the third-highest number of alligators in the nation, behind only Florida and Louisiana. "It helps with population management," he added.
Warner has been in his job since 2017. He says his office gets about 1,000 calls for "nuisance alligators" every year. The office works with about 70 specially licensed professionals across the Lone Star State who are trained to capture and, if necessary, relocate wandering alligators. "A number of the staff" at Gator Country are among those trained, he said.
Gator Country opened to the public in 2005. Owner Gary Saurage told weather.com the water was waist-high late last week. Saurage, who has a home on the property, appeared in a video posted on Facebook on Sept. 21 and told the park's followers he didn't yet know how the animals were faring.
"The water just won't leave," Saurage, an alligator trapper for the state of Texas, said, then added: "Southeast Texas, we love you. Stay strong; we're fighting a battle here. This is the hardest battle I've ever fought in my life."
On Sept. 23, Saurage returned to Facebook to report Big Al, a gator who previously held Big Tex's record, was safe and sound in his enclosure at the park. Now Big Tex's story has a happy ending, as well.
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