I’m deathly afraid of alligators, so when a friend introduced me to Ken Cowles, a fellow barefoot water skier, I took one look at his Facebook profile picture and cringed. Ken was sitting on a humongous gator with a mouth so big it could swallow a barefoot water skier in one single gulp.
My fear of alligators has become a running joke among friends and they love to torture me with photos and videos on my Facebook wall. And because Facebook loves to respond to anything popular in your feed by sending you even more of the same stuff–Ken Cowles posts began to show up in my feed with gator after gator. Turns out Ken is the epitome of boldness. He regularly goes face to face with alligators as a licensed trapper in Sarasota, Florida. In fact, in the middle of our interview for this Growing Bolder post, Ken was called away to chase an unruly 11.5 foot gator that was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
I was really curious about Ken’s story. Why would anyone want to face those beasts on a regular basis?
It’s definitely not for the money, because it’s a tough, dangerous job that requires a lot of time and personal resources to make it happen.
When I first contacted Ken, I jokingly (actually, I was serious) asked him to get rid of the gators from the lakes I ski on every year in Florida. He laughed. Apparently he’s used to those requests. Ken’s own foray into the alligator business came about after he called a trapper to remove some large alligators from a lake he and his kids were skiing on. Ken was fascinated with the process and he began to learn the skills involved in catching gators.
“Of course, there’s no manual to read, you have to learn as you go,” Ken explained. “Each alligator is different and can surprise you. Once you get to the point you think you know everything, that’s when trouble happens.”
I was surprised to learn that 90 percent of the time, Ken catches alligators by calling them first. He has a series of grunts and calls recorded on a boom box and plays the sounds from shore. Occasionally he uses his own voice to mimic an alligator grunt. Sometimes the gators come so enthusiastically they attack the boom box and chomp down. Ken has had to replace a few boxes over the years.
I asked Ken to share some of his scariest incidents in catching gators. Most of the time the catches are routine as he employs a variety of ways to bait, snag, fish, or noose a gator. “I have had many catches that probably qualify as scary, many of which ultimately are forgotten,” Ken said. “I will say that especially when you first start catching gators, every one of them scare the crap out of you. After you’ve gained experience and know what you’re doing you are best to remain scared, because the minute you aren’t scared you get careless and by not paying attention you can easily lose your life or a limb.”
Ken almost lost a limb once. Ken’s father was sitting on a eight-foot gator that they had caught at a golf course. Ken reached over to remove a treble hook and the reptile clamped down on his left forearm. For twenty long minutes, Ken tried everything to get the gator to loosen his grip, ending up with his right hand trapped too. Whatever you do, don’t get up, he told his dad. Finally, the animal relaxed and Ken broke free. “I ended up with lots of puncture wounds and holes punched through fingers. But other than that….no broken bones. I had all my appendages–just a wounded ego,” Ken laughed.
Alligators are known to be lightning fast and extremely powerful. During one call, Ken arrived to find a gator on a sidewalk outside of a home. When he approached, the gator turned and ran. Ken chased after it running at full speed and still couldn’t catch up with it. “I was running as fast as I could and it was pulling away,” Ken recalled. “I threw my lariat and by luck, noosed it like a cowboy at a rodeo.”
Ken has removed alligators from an eight-foot fence (yes, they can climb!) and a second floor condominium. He has climbed into storm drain pipes and hauled them out of there.
Every morning, Ken hits the gym to stay fit so he can lift the gators into his truck. Between operating a real estate business with his father, he’s always switching between business suits and his trapper uniform. “I am kind of a modern day Clark Kent as I change back and forth from real estate to gator wrangling costumes,” Ken said. For fun, you can find him barefoot water skiing or coaching a lacrosse team.
Among his many skills, Ken can whip up Gator Guy Gumbo– a recipe that won first place in a gumbo contest.
The Gator Guy’s Gator Gumbo: