So Renner set out to document the adventures of one man whose job it was to bring egg poachers to justice — Jeff Babauta, a former K-9 officer of the state’s fish and wildlife commission who went deep undercover as an alligator farmer to root out the thieves. The account of Jeff’s multiyear ordeal has all the gritty mundaneness of any day-to-day job, with alligator wrangling, outlaw finessing, Method acting and risk to life and limb thrown in.
Though Babauta was a law-enforcement officer, Renner recounts, he often felt a kinship with the poachers he was tasked to bring in. After all, people who live near the swamp, and are of the swamp, do far less damage to its survival and integrity than those who come from afar to buy the newly built homes for which much of Florida has been denatured and drained. Or the developers and politicians who cater so eagerly and profitably to that voracious demand.
The weirdness of Sunshine State culture has been fetishized in media and art, most recently in cringey memes and the quirky Florida-based fictions of writers like Karen Russell and Lauren Groff. But, as Renner puts it: “I was tired of reading stories that treated the glades, and all of Florida, really, as a wild and wacky backdrop where characters and tall tales abounded, where ‘normal’ folks vacationed but where real people didn’t live.”
Instead, Renner gives the remarkable nature of South Florida, as well as the often hardscrabble folk whose families have lived there for generations, the love and respect they deserve. What she and Babauta share is a reverence for the creatures of the swamp, a sense of wonder at their mysteries and a desperate wish for others to feel that wonder, too.
Alligators aren’t easy poster children for conservation; they aren’t cuddly-looking pandas or playful sea otters. Rather, they crawl toward us out of the dark ooze, slowly opening long jaws lined with sharp teeth. They lurk in the murk like primordial fear and sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of a golf course fence.
But they’re as singular and magnificent as the Everglades themselves. Every species, and every person who fights for its continued existence, deserves a book like this — a book that explores the complexity of the nexus between humans and animals and the exploitation of the wild, and considers the ambiguities of our fractured relationship to nature, morality and history.
GATOR COUNTRY: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades | By Rebecca Renner | Flatiron | 277 pp. | $29.99