By Scott Craven, The Republic | AzCentral.com
No one approaches an ill-tempered 500-pound alligator with the sole intent of aggravating it further. At least, not if he or she wants to leave with all limbs intact.
Russ Johnson, however, is not most people, and he was in charge of moving said alligator to a new enclosure at the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Scottsdale. And if he was going to drag Clem to another pen, the gator could not be kicking and thrashing the entire way.
Johnson decided that the key was to first tire out the 28-year-old gator, and if that meant irritating him, so be it.
With a class of middle-school students looking on, Johnson and four other gator wranglers needed 15 minutes, a thick towel, ropes and plenty of electrical tape to safely move Clem from his 20-foot-by-12-foot enclosure to his recently finished 26-foot-by-25-foot pen.
The new suite was fully furnished with grass, pond, paloverde tree and female roommate.
The move had been planned for months, and though it covered just 20 feet down a narrow path, Johnson, president of the Herpetological Society, planned it out nearly to a science.
"This went just about as well as it could possibly have," Johnson said. There had been no injuries, and not even any close calls.
Clem was as surly as anticipated when wranglers approached him Tuesday morning. The gator, who has been at the sanctuary since 2005, raised his head, bared his teeth and hissed as Johnson and the wranglers came close.
Johnson said he and Clem got off to a bad start when Johnson was called to capture the gator at Pakoon Springs, in northwestern Arizona, more than eight years ago.
The Phoenix Herpetological Society was called by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to trap a gator some thought was mythical.
Clem began life as a pet, albeit one tossed into a spring and largely forgotten. The gator was a gift to a rancher from a friend in Alabama, and back then Clem was small, cute and unnecessary. The rancher plopped him into one of the small bodies of water that gave Pakoon Springs its name.
Clem survived on a steady diet of bullfrogs and lizards, Johnson said. Every now and then the rancher would throw onto the bank a rabbit he'd shot, or an unfortunate member of the ostrich flock he once raised.
Then BLM purchased the ranch in 2002, and when it was clear that an alligator was on the loose, Johnson was asked to safely remove it.
The professional gator wrangler needed two weeklong trips before he finally snared Clem in a trap baited with rabbit meat. Secured aboard a horse trailer for the 8-hour drive to Scottsdale, Clem was one ticked-off gator when he arrived, and he has been in a bad mood ever since, Johnson said.
"The first thing I did when I caught him was check him for gender," Johnson said of a maneuver that can be very uncomfortable for alligators. "As soon as he felt my finger, he never forgot my face, and he's hated me ever since."
Thanks to a diet of whole chickens and the occasional turkey, Clem has grown from 125 to 500 pounds in his years at the Phoenix Herpetological Center. He's roughly 11 feet long, an estimate since no one cares to risk getting a more accurate measure. His size necessitated a larger enclosure.
As soon as the gate to Clem's pen was opened Tuesday, workers slipped two ropes over the gator's jaws and pulled the nooses taut. The goal, according to Johnson's plan, was to tug the alligator's head back and forth, hoping Clem would struggle and tire himself out.
The gator obliged, thrashing as much as the ropes allowed. Within five minutes, Johnson heard just what he was waiting for.
"There was a groan and I could see all the air going out of Clem's lungs," Johnson said. "Gators do that when they're exhausted."
Daniel Marchand dropped on all fours in front of Clem, armed with a roll of electrical tape. Moving quickly, the society's executive curator circled the jaws five times, taking Clem's most dangerous weapon away.
"The only time I worried was when Clem's teeth were right in front of me and nothing was between me and them," Marchand said. "You never know what's going to happen, so you have to be extremely careful. He gets free for an instant and you can lose fingers or a hand."
Marchand then placed a bath towel over Clem's eyes and secured it with more electrical tape; it's preferred over duct tape, which can leave a sticky residue and damage scaly skin.
Once Clem was essentially blind and toothless, Johnson and two workers tugged on the ropes and pulled the gator out of his pen. Marchand and another wrangler lifted the tail and pushed, dragging Clem the 20 feet to his new home.
Once Clem's tail was through the gate of his new home, Marchand removed the towel and tape as four men lay across the gator to hold him down.
Once freed, Clem pushed at the fence with his nose, a move Johnson said is common for gators as they look for an escape route.
"He'll spend the next few days testing every inch of fence," Johnson said. "No way is he getting out. Those concrete blocks at the bottom are set several inches deep."
An hour later, Clem pushed himself into his new pond, the gator's version of a recliner. As he relaxed, he initially ignored his roommate, Fluffy, a 20-year-old refugee from a Florida wildlife park.
While Fluffy had been comfortable in her previous pen, Johnson was hoping the female might help Clem mellow out. The two alligators did move closer together at one point.
"He (Clem) grew up alone, so he's been a virgin a very long time," Johnson said. "I'm not sure having Fluffy will help, but it sure couldn't hurt. If Fluffy makes him even slightly less mean, it's going to be worth it."