- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

RAVENEL, S.C. (AP) - If nonhunters harbor any stereotypes of the South Carolinians who yearly apply for a tag to stalk alligators, Mandy Kimmons blows them away.

When the 29-year-old attorney showed up at Cordray’s processing facility with the 79-pound alligator she’d killed earlier that morning, she was wearing a powder pink T-shirt and a shy expression.

“I went with my mom and dad and killed a gator,” Kimmons said tentatively. “I just shot it with a crossbow.”

Owner Michael Cordray, overhearing Kimmons’ account as he walked toward the room where the defeated alligator was being systematically broken down into sausage meat and nuggets, paused to mock scold her. “Don’t say ‘just,’” he counseled. “You’ve got to be dramatic.”

But even without emphasizing the moonlit hours spent tugging a thrashing alligator toward her skiff, it was clear that Kimmons had taken part in one of the more intense human-animal duels sanctioned by the state. As Kimmons puts it, “It’s way more fun than deer hunting.”

The prospect of experiencing the primitive thrill that comes with dispatching a creature that Cordray’s staffer Reid Lawson describes as “part dinosaur” annually inspires upward of 5,000 people across the country to enter the Department of Natural Resources’ lottery drawing.

While fewer than half of the 1,000 tag recipients typically manage to land an alligator, the six-year-old program has been an overwhelming success for Cordray’s, the only operation in the state offering the one-two combo of alligator processing and taxidermy.

Patrick Raley lives in Greenville, but he brings his alligators to Cordray’s in Ravenel. The human resources director carries a slim wallet made from the skin of a previous catch. Last month, after pulling his first all-nighter since college in order to help his son make good on his tag, he placed a bigger order. “They’re going to make a rug for me,” he said.

This year’s public alligator season started on the second Saturday in September and ended Oct. 11 at noon. The hunt is strictly regulated, with tags divided among four regions that extend from the coast to Richland County. Lawson says he can tell whether an alligator has spent its life fighting river currents or feasting on freshwater critters. “A lot of the coastal gators, they’re kind of small,” he adds.

Hunters are prohibited from using set hooks, bait, rifles and shotguns. According to SCDNR’s website, the problem with shooting alligators is they tend to submerge after taking a bullet, leading hunters to believe they’ve missed.

“The hunter may continue to hunt and unknowingly kill additional alligators before being able to retrieve one,” the website explains. “This activity would be unacceptable, as this is not an alligator eradication program.”

Yet the program is still controversial. Detractors aren’t comfortable with the idea of people snag-hooking resting reptiles and reeling them in for a fatal handgun shot or hatchet wallop to the cervical spine. Not surprisingly, most alligators seem to share their concerns.

“The fun is when you get them close to the boat and they don’t want to be there,” says Raley, who hunts with an experienced guide. “We had one hit the boat because he thought we were something to eat. Another one got us cornered. But we’ve got a pretty good-sized boat.”

Although alligators are considerably fiercer than the deer and ducks also being brought to Cordray’s this time of year, SCDNR spokesman Brett Witt says there haven’t been any injuries reported by tag holders. The biggest risk for hunters is disappointment, although the luckiest among them return with enough meat to fill a few chest coolers.

“A lot of the sausage we cook up for chili for tailgating,” Raley says. “The tail meat’s the best. My wife, she likes making casserole with it.”

Lawson, who can break down an average-size alligator in about an hour, likes the tail meat too.

“It’s going to be a little more tender,” he says. But he’s especially fond of the coveted jowl, which shrouds the succulence associated with fish and pig cheeks.

Michael Cordray, though, doesn’t speak of steaks and loins when he surveys the butchered alligator meat in his freezer. It’s all “nuggets” - meaning usable cuts, not necessarily shaped like what schoolchildren encounter on the cafeteria line - and sausage.

“When we first made the sausage, we hit on a good recipe,” he says. “We have repeat customers coming back for the sausage.”

When Lawson cuts up an alligator, he’s mindful of the customer’s taxidermy request. Michael Cordray’s son Kenneth, 27, is in charge of turning alligators into lamps, tabletop skulls and mounted heads for hanging, among other creations. At Cordray’s, one back corner of the salesroom is occupied by a stuffed alligator perched on its hind legs, his jaw menacingly ajar. The gator’s stumpy front legs support a wooden beverage tray.

“We had to learn all of this,” says Kenneth Cordray, who practiced on captured nuisance alligators before the public hunt was approved in 2008.

Cordray’s opened 23 years ago, but didn’t offer taxidermy until Kenneth learned the skill while he was a student at Clemson. “I apprenticed between classes,” he says. “It’s something different, it’s something that’s not normal.”

A rug, which Cordray considers the “coolest” option, costs $250 a foot; a full-body mount can cost at least $4,000.

For her upcoming birthday, Kimmons asked for a pen holder made from one of her alligator’s legs. The criminal prosecutor plans to put it on her desk. She claims nobody sitting opposite of her will be daunted by the trophy, but it will no doubt serve as a warning to future antagonists who try to slip out of Kimmons’ snare.


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com



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