Beyond the Easy Mythology of “Florida Man” in the Heart of the Everglades
Rebecca Renner Explores the Alligator Poacher Sting that Divided a Community
In January 2020, I drove down from Orlando to the easternmost edge of the Everglades and booked a room in the neon-dazzled Miccosukee Casino & Resort, a hotel in the no-man’s-land between the glitz of Miami and the seemingly endless wilderness of the glades. That night, I looked out of my window on the casino’s tenth floor, drinking in the surreal feeling of the trip. I had come there on Outside magazine’s dime to write a story about python hunters.
Out on the glades with the hunters, I quickly realized they weren’t who I expected, some caricature of rugged, bloodthirsty hunters. They were intelligent, compassionate conservationists. They were funny, too, with a humor that was equal parts dark and zany, just like my own. I found kindred spirits in them.
After spending the entire day with the hunters, trawling the levees for invasive snakes, we stopped where the levees forked and took a break as the last breaths of light drained from the expansive sky. Before that day, I had always thought of the Everglades as a massive wilderness, untamed and inhospitable. In my mind, the glades had been home to alligators, pythons, a bounty of mosquitoes, and not much else. Yet as fireflies drifted like motes over the sawgrass, a sense of wonder gripped my heart.
“When you really know the Everglades—and not many people do—that’s when you fall in love,” one of the hunters said. As we gazed out over the black water, a companionable silence fell between us, and we stood in mutual reverence at the altar of nature’s savage beauty.
I’ve seen so many things and people here maligned and misunderstood. You could explore the Everglades for years and never see it all. To bastardize a Gertrude Stein quote, there is so much there there. But if you’re looking for something else, you might miss it. Just as many writers miss the majesty of the Everglades while they’re determined to find something else, writers miss the people of the Everglades, too. They get one concept in their minds—Florida Man, say—or they’re too busy playing adventurer, and they manage to walk by the truly extraordinary without a second glance. They fail to be open to the real adventure, to the truth about the place, and to the real lives of the people who call it home; and they end up writing their stereotypical preconceptions.
This motivates me to be a better writer. Even when I’m not writing about Florida, I know I have to challenge my preconceptions, or I might just miss the truth as it goes flying so close to my face that it almost hits me. People make the story. Understanding them, not just why they do the things they do, but the complex and nuanced heart of who they are, is my writing raison d’être.
Of course, this brought me back to Operation Alligator Thief. It was a story of people like me, like these python hunters I sat with out in the glades—not outlandish characters, but folks who could have been my neighbors. So too did it seem a story in life’s gray areas. Was what happened to the poachers caught in Operation Alligator Thief ’s trap fair? Was it legal? I wanted to understand what it was like to be a poacher in the glades. I wanted to live the lives of rangers and wildlife officers, too. I wanted to tell a story of people. No heroes, no villains, just the desperate choices that make us who we are.
When I reached the end of my clues, I knew that if I wanted to keep going there was only one thing I could do. I had to find Jeff Babauta.
As many a strange experience does, the next phase of my search began on Twitter. Completely by accident—after a misunderstanding turned argument turned thoughtful discussion on the social platform—I befriended Will, a former army intelligence agent, who volunteered to help me track Jeff down. We both hunted for Jeff ’s information and then compared notes. He found the same disconnected phone numbers that I had, and we used those as a touchstone to find an address. By then, the pandemic had hit, and I was locked down in Orlando. Will said he would check the address out for me. No one was home, so Will left a handwritten note. Jeff didn’t respond. Not being one to give up, Will wrote another note with his name and phone number, and he stuck this one in Jeff’s door handle. Then we waited.
Just when I had all but given up on this particular strategy, my phone rang. It was Will—with Jeff ’s phone number.
“He sounded a bit iffy about us, but he said to call him,” Will said.
So I did. He answered on the second ring.
“Hi, this is Rebecca Renner,” I said as brightly as possible, a smile in my voice.
“How are you?” he said, his voice gruff, wary, and—perhaps—curious.
Unbeknownst to us, Will’s note had dislodged from the door handle and fluttered against Jeff’s leg as he did yardwork. Reading the sender’s name, Jeff had thrown down his rake and scuttled inside, locking the door behind him. He peered out of the blinds, wondering how one of the poachers’ relatives had gotten his home address. Will, it turned out, shared a surname with someone nabbed in Operation Alligator Thief. However, they were not in fact related.
Jeff read the note again. It said that Will wanted to talk to him. That sounded ominous to Jeff, he would tell me later. But his curiosity won out, and he called the number nonetheless. Instead of a poacher-turned-stalker, Jeff found himself talking to an army-vet-turned- journalist. Will explained his mission and gave Jeff my phone number.
“Thank you for agreeing to talk to me,” I said. His silence scrutinized me. “Um, I’ve been looking into your case, into Operation Alligator Thief. And I’m hoping to write a book about it.”
“Is this a personal book you’re writing, or is this for National Geographic?” he asked.
I usually wrote for Nat Geo, and I assumed that’s why Jeff agreed to talk.
Jeff was suspicious of me at first. It wasn’t in what he said but how he said it, making me feel I could only venture so far into his world as we chatted.
I knew as well as anyone how writers tend to swoop into Florida, get the titillating details of what they think is the story, and then retreat to New York as fast as they can—missing important facts in the process. But as we spoke, the drawl slowly melted back into my voice, and Jeff knew I was of this place just as much as he was. We talked about our love of nature and of Florida books. When he mentioned A Land Remembered, the quintessential Florida pioneer novel, I felt the possibility for a connection deep enough that he might really welcome me into his story.
Later, he invited me into his home and showed me his collections, collages of memorabilia in his sunroom from each of his big cases. He had kept his business card and newspaper clippings from Sunshine Alligator Farm. He had photos of the gators and one of him in his full undercover getup. He had also kept every document and recording, boxes of the stuff, and he said he would go through it and determine what he might let me see.
We sat on the couch for another interview, and his hundred-plus-pound yellow Lab, Ruger, wedged himself between my legs, laid his head on my knee, and insisted on being petted. I obliged enthusiastically. Jeff offered to shoo Ruger away, but I said it was fine. We carried on the interview like that, the dog slobbering on my left leg as I scribbled on the notepad perched on my right.
When Ruger suddenly growled, Jeff said, “I’m sorry. He’s never like this.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s because I stopped petting him.” I started again, and Ruger recommenced his full-body wag. That made Jeff smile, and we talked about our dogs. I had a black Lab–hound mix named Daisy, then thirteen, the same age as Ruger. “You gotta love old dogs,” I said. I had tried so hard to win Jeff over, and I had only gotten so far. When I stopped trying and started being myself, the kind of person who’s never met a dog she didn’t want to befriend, who thinks all creatures—whether fluffy or scaly, feathered or slimy—are cute, who tends to talk to wild birds and otters the same way she talks to her cat, that is when I felt something click into place. I had to be open first for him to be open.
When he showed me a video of dozens of baby gators in a kiddie pool, my heart melted at the sound of their squeaks. Jeff was more somber. He wished he could have done more for them. He felt like he had failed the gators, because they ended up at the tannery anyway. Part of him was confident that the sting had been the crowning achievement of his career. Another part clearly wondered if his efforts had been in vain. Even some of his fellow officers had said, “Alligators? What’s the point?”
“Well, what did you say to them?” I asked. We had been poring over documents on his family computer, tucked into a nook of bookshelves.
“I said, ‘What’s the point?’”—his tone remembering his anger. “‘Sure, they aren’t endangered, but they have been before. We don’t want them to go back there again. You don’t wait around for an emergency before you prepare for it. You try to stop these things before they happen in the first place. That’s the point. More than just the gators go if gators disappear. Everything falls apart.’”
It’s hard to spend time in Florida’s wilderness without seeing the environmental impact of humanity. Even in my hometown near Daytona Beach, it’s there. Just south, the Indian River Lagoon is embroiled in a decades-long fight to clean up Florida’s waterways. Once one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere, boasting as many as forty-three hundred species of plants and animals, the lagoon is now dying. Nutrients from runoff have twisted the water composition. Algae took over, sparking a chain reaction that led to the most brutal manatee mortality event on record. More manatees died in the first three months of 2021 than in any other full year. Our love affair with lawns and golf courses is to blame. I was just as much part of the problem as any of my neighbors. It’s so easy to forget that our actions, no matter how small they seem, have environmental consequences. We defy nature, bending it to our will. That impulse is so prevalent in Western civilization that most of us have stopped noticing it at all. Nowhere is that animosity so clear as in the Everglades. For centuries, settlers have ripped up, paved, and drained the glades, and now we wonder why those ecosystems seem so irreparably broken that they’re poisoning us as we have done to them. The same is happening in coastal wetlands around the world. Just like in the Indian River Lagoon, many wetlands are dying, falling prey to developers, suffering from pollution, or transforming into ghost forests with the pressure of sea-level rise. With so many enemies threatening them from all fronts, wetlands’ days are numbered, as are those of the wildlife that call them home, if humans continue our banal and careless destruction.
Jeff saw something similar in alligators. Their security as a species rises and falls with humanity’s view of wetlands. When people pave swamps—and when floods, fires, and hurricanes devastate the Deep South—alligator populations take a downturn; and without alligators, a keystone species and apex predator, a ripple effect sends changes throughout the food web, back to the land, and back to us.
Caught between his love of animals and his care for people, Jeff grappled with difficult decisions throughout the sting. Some meant the difference between life and death. Others came from stickier ethical questions: How far do you go to catch a criminal? Is it right to commit a crime yourself if you’re bringing the “bad guys” down? At times, that’s what Jeff called them, defending his choices, saying that punishing the poachers to the fullest extent of the law was the only way to protect the wild. Other times, he wondered if he could have done more for the poachers themselves. Surely, there must have been a way to stop them without destroying their lives.
Since Operation Alligator Thief first made headlines, the sting had come under question. The agency’s head quit, and a great upheaval followed. Some detractors said that what Jeff and FWC did was illegal, that they should have been the ones punished and not the poachers themselves. What happened that was so terrible?
Months passed, and I interviewed Jeff again and again. Jeff himself got into the habit of calling me to check in. Just when I felt too stuck to write anymore, as if by magic, my phone would ring. The screen would read, JEFF BABAUTA CALLING.
I had known him for about half a year when he trusted me enough to hand his case documents over, all of them, every game cam photo, every recording, everything I could have possibly wanted.
The deeper I went into the investigation, the further I realized there was to go. What I found is that it’s easy to cast judgments from the sidelines. No one is the character we think they are. The truth confronts us only after we challenge our expectations.
One truth I came across on the way is this: To be at odds with nature is to be at odds with ourselves. We, as a species, stand at a crossroads. We can choose to live with nature or against it. Our centuries of war with the swamp have shown that when we attack nature, nature will fight back, and both humans and nature will lose. However, powers that serve to lose monetarily have presented us with a false dichotomy: that choosing to save nature is a choice for animals, against people. It’s not. The equally false idea that humans are an invasive species is the other side of that coin. We’re not. We’re animals, too, but unlike other animals, we’re greedy, and we know, deep down, that when we take too much, it’s wrong. What do these two sides have in common? Storytelling. Stories bind us. Stories tell us who we are. They’ll rally us. Then we’ll have the power to strive and survive.
My hope is that by the end of this book—the story of Operation Alligator Thief—you will come to understand that a gator is not just a gator, and a poacher is never just a poacher.
Excerpted from Gator Country. Copyright © 2023 by Rebecca Renner. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.