We Got Gators in Austin. Now What?
Fearsome invaders or frightened longtime residents facing displacement? Either way, we got gators in town.
Alberto Garnica Jr., a Travis County game warden, arrived one day in early December at a retention pond in the Berdoll Farms subdivision in Del Valle, south of the high school, and was shocked to hear a deep bellow echo from the direction of the three long, dark culverts at the pond's edge. When another warden arrived at the scene, a flashlight beam in the tunnel on the left revealed several pairs of red-orange eyes, glowing in the murk.
Garnica has worked as a game warden in Austin for about two years, during which he has almost never been called to investigate an alligator sighting. He concluded that at least one lives in the Berdoll Farms pond; he suspects others are making themselves at home in the area. They're not alone. One culvert over, the wardens spotted a couple families of otters. Plenty of turtles, fish, and crawfish live around there too, making easy snacks for apex predators.
Some neighbors worry that the alligators may be eating more than their fair share. At the beginning of December, unconfirmed accounts circulated that a dog had been attacked by an alligator. Headlines reported that story as fact, leading to widespread concern about the safety of all creatures, including humans, in the neighborhood.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which has also investigated the apparent gator habitat, hasn't been able to confirm the dog story; although witnesses said they heard yelps coming from the culverts, no canine remains have been found. Nevertheless, after residents and their elected leaders applied some pressure, TPWD has agreed to remove any alligators from the pond.
Things Are Tough All Over
Berdoll Farms is not an old neighborhood; it was platted and built out in the mid-2000s, not far from what had been, at its founding in 1943, the Del Valle Army Air Base. The city owned that land, leased it to the Army and then the Air Force, and then took it back as the base closed (with some help from powerful friends in D.C.) to transform it into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which opened in 1999. The city followed up by annexing selected bits of the unincorporated and undemarcated community of Del Valle so it could smartly manage the inevitable growth to come; the county joined in to build amenities like its Southeast Metropolitan Park nearby.
For Patricia King, an officer of the Berdoll Farms Homeowners' Association over the last decade, the alligator is an old neighbor. Local TV hits dating back to at least 2013 reported that a 7-foot-long gator was living in the pond and had even been caught on camera by residents (but not by the stations). King says that she had talked to TPWD about the alligator, which didn't cause her any concern when it was young and single. She named it Bernie.
Now that the family has grown, or that new gators have arrived, she thinks the name choice may have been a mistake: "Maybe Bernie's name should've been Bernice." She's also worried about run-ins with people on the trail that surrounds the pond, especially as the neighborhood changes. Since those first alligator sightings, another 500 or so homes have been added to Berdoll Farms and the adjoining Meadows at Berdoll subdivision, and many more are sprouting up all over Del Valle as Central Texans search for affordable places to live. "There's kids who play out here," she says, "and then with the news of the alligator, of course kids are gonna be curious, and sometimes they go right to the edge of that pond."
Council Member Vanessa Fuentes' district includes Berdoll Farms. She says she's worked with her counterparts at the Texas Legislature – Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin – to ask TPWD to remove the alligator. "I wanted to make sure they were heard," she explained, alluding to a history of inequitable governance and underinvestment in what has historically been a predominantly Hispanic, working-class, rural community.
But Jeysi Morales, who lives in Berdoll Farms and attended Del Valle High School just a few blocks away, says longtime residents have known of the reptiles for years, and that it's the newcomers to the area who are fussing over their unexpected neighbor and convinced the HOA, TPWD, and the city and county to move the gators. "They never GAF before till all the rich white people started moving over here," she wrote in a comment on Facebook.
She told the Chronicle that, as happens often in today's Austin, "It's kind of unfair for more people to come here and then want to take the alligators out, when they've basically been there." As the city's wealth and whiteness spread further out to its edges, it's not just humans who fall victim to gentrification and displacement.
Real-Life Urban Legends
In 1979, a photographer and all-around fixture at The Daily Texan published a story about a fellow UT student who'd released more than 300 baby alligators into Lake Austin and Lake Travis. The author, Berke Breathed, eventually found his niche as a cartoonist who would soon become a national sensation as the creator of Bloom County; he told Texas Monthly in 1987 that swimmers, boaters, and lakefront homeowners went into panic mode, property values tanked, and the Statesman (falling for the hoax) quoted a wildlife specialist who said at least a few of the alligators would be likely to survive into adulthood. Then, police arrested Breathed and slapped him with $500 in fines. Breathed had two baby alligators in a bathtub at his apartment; through the magic of photo editing and the repurposing of some normal chicken eggs, they had become a swarm of invasive species.
To this day, when Austinites make reports of alligators in the city limits, they're often written off as hoaxes or attributed to the release of an exotic pet. As it turns out, that wildlife specialist may have had the correct perspective. In July 2020, as Austinites headed to Lady Bird Lake in droves to try to get some exercise and cool off in the first pandemic summer, kayakers spotted a 3- or 4-foot alligator warming itself on a log. TPWD's current alligator specialist Jonathan Warner told KVUE back then that the alligator was most likely dumped by a person who was keeping it as a pet.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle, though, Warner acknowledged there's no reason to believe any of the alligators that have been spotted in Austin did not arrive here naturally. Travis County is at the far edge of the alligators' natural range, but they have been known to live in more than 120 counties across the state. Mostly these are along the Gulf Coast and in the swampy bayous of East Texas, but alligators have also traveled upriver not only to Austin, but as far as the Trinity River in downtown Ft. Worth.
Texas' alligators are endangered species, and the population was on the brink of complete collapse before conservation measures were implemented in the late 1960s to protect the animals from hunting (it's allowed at certain times of year and locations, under strict limits set by TPWD). Today, nearly half a million alligators make Texas their home. Outside the state's waterways and wetlands, few people have noticed.
Warner explains that alligators, like most apex predators, fear humans more than we fear them. Only two documented fatal alligator attacks have occurred in Texas' recorded history. The first was in 1836, during the Texas Revolution, amid a skirmish with the Mexican army. The second was nearly two centuries later, when a drunk man in 2015 celebrated the Fourth of July with a late-night swim in an East Texas bayou where an alligator fed by humans was known to lurk. His memorable last words, as reported by hysterical companions and somber local officials: "Fuck the alligators!"
The canoeists and kayakers who spend the most up-close-and-personal time with Texas' gators regard them with healthy respect. Michelle Waterman, a local paddler who's been on the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop nearly every weekend since 2007, said she's seen alligators only a handful of times – and that's because she has learned how to better spot them rather than to an increase in the gators' numbers or aggression.
"If you look at the satellite maps, there are all these pools off of the river in various places around Webberville, and they hide up in there," Waterman said. She looks for eyes peeping above the surface and for ripples beneath. After floods, she said, sightings are more likely as alligators get washed out of the ponds and creeks and into the main channel of the river. If there are alligators living in the waterways upstream, she wonders, what's the point of taking them away? Won't they just come right on back?
Look, Nature Is Healing!
Early in the pandemic, people grasping for an upside to the chaotic disruption of their lives wondered if wild animals would reclaim their natural environments as us human neighbors socially distanced ourselves. In Texas, evidence suggests that may have happened in some places. River otters have been spotted near Texas State University in San Marcos and in downtown Houston. Studies have shown improvements in water quality in rivers and lakes in some areas of the state.
However, it's unclear whether encounters with wild Texas fauna are increasing because there are more critters and nature is healing, or because Texans are spending more time outside. Looking for safe opportunities to recreate and socialize, people bought paddleboards and kayaks and purchased fishing and hunting licenses in record numbers, so they saw more of Texas – in some cases perhaps more than they would've liked. Warner said there's no doubt that calls to TPWD about alligators are increasing. As the state's population continues to climb, he expects the trend to continue. "It's just a function of folks spreading outward into gator territory," he said.
Eventually, Texans will have to learn how to coexist with their more fearsome natural neighbors. Although TPWD has a nuisance alligator program whereby animals that have lost their natural fear of humans are killed or relocated, that's a fairly high behavioral bar to clear. There's no indication it's true of any alligators living in Berdoll Farms' ponds.
Rather, Warner explained, the proximity of schools and families, and especially the strong sentiments of those in the community and their reactions to the media coverage, made it important for TPWD to take action. He worries someone may try to take the matter into their own hands. During nuisance removals, game wardens sometimes find the animals ridden with bullet holes.
Once they're located, the animals will likely be rehomed at a permitted facility, as the community has requested the gators not be killed. In these circumstances, Warner told us, alligators aren't relocated elsewhere in the wild because they've become too accustomed to people. Alligators go into brumation, a semi-dormant state similar to hibernation, during the winter, so it may be weeks or months before the alligator is found and removed. In the meantime, Garnica said, TPWD is working with a licensed trapper to monitor the pond for any signs of activity.
Waterman is still confused about why Texans are making such a big deal about the alligators. In Florida, local wisdom holds you should assume any body of water has an alligator living in it. She wonders how long until Texans, who pride themselves on their grit, stop their unseemly freaking out, since alligators are so averse to human contact. Likewise, Warner's top safety tip for living with alligators is just to give them space and leave them alone.
In the days after the alligator was found in her neighborhood, Morales and others who opposed removing them jumped on social media to ask if maybe gators should just be welcomed and accepted by fellow inhabitants of their upstream range. That may be easier said than done in a city where hundreds of swimmers and paddlers can be found at the mouth of Barton Creek each summer weekend in a giant flotilla. But if we can adopt bats and armadillos as local mascots, what's to stop us from making room for one more unsightly creature on Austin's wildlife roster?