steve-oden-column

The other day, I found myself wondering what happened to the Tennessee River gators during this past winter: one of the coldest in several decades.

It’s funny I would worry about reptiles that, back in the 1980s, a U.S. congressman claimed would eat pet dogs, cats and maybe people in residential subdivisions that butted against the river. Population growth had pushed urban boundaries into areas where I had crappie fished and duck hunted as a youth.

A “water park” had been built to attract yet more potential residents. The headlines about gators re-populating nearby TVA sloughs and swamps conjured images of hungry monsters lurking in the wave pool to snap up hapless children and old people when they hurtled down the water slide.

The alligators were released on the adjacent wildlife refuge — a top-secret operation that had been the brain child of a contentious old federal game-and-fish official who suspected the Tennessee River might have been part of the natural range of the species before Europeans arrived in the New World. Certainly not as many gators inhabited the Appalachian region of the watershed as were found in Florida or Louisiana, but the refuge manager believed they had existed and were self-sustaining on a diet of carp, gar and turtles.

A wet-behind-the-ears newspaper reporter happened to be in the proverbial right place at the right time when the truckload of gators arrived on a muggy August evening. I was the only journalist to witness the release of alligators in the swamps on the north side of Wheeler Reservoir. The scoop made my wife inordinately proud. Decades later, she still recalled it as the highpoint of my career: Alligator Watergate.

When my newspaper published the story, the uproar began. The release was a mere three or four years after the movie “Jaws” had caused terror at public beaches. Most of the residents of the sizable river city convinced themselves that ravening reptiles would be chasing people through the streets and alleys. The Chamber of Commerce became anti-alligator. The entire community turned for help to those with a different kind of appetite and bite: politicians.

When the congressman (who happened to be running for re-election) demanded that federal officials hire an alligator hunter (flashback to Capt. Quint in “Jaws”), the plot became even thicker. The gator guy — I think he was from New Orleans — bravely set out to trap the reptiles, but he goose-egged and finally quit after collecting his pay check but none of his quarry.

In truth, many of the gators were small. They were needles in a vast haystack of wetlands. After the first winter, the furor died away. So-called wildlife experts predicted the animals had died when the temperature dipped below freezing. Concerned citizens breathed a sigh of relief and voted for the congressman who had failed to round up any gators — but had tried. That’s what counted, in their minds.

He won another term on the strength of the anti-alligator vote. Not tails or scales were seen of the beasts — at least, not for several years until a 12-ft. behemoth lumbered onto a muddy creek bank in the summer to sun and contemplate passing skiers with yellow baleful eyes. The congressman was out of office by then, working as a lobbyist. The old federal wildlife official who caused the whole mess had retired.

And tourists actually were arriving in town and booking motel rooms in hopes of spotting Tennessee River gators and making photos for their animal albums. The course unofficially chosen was peaceful co-existence, although from time-to-time a letter to the editor hit the local paper, bemoaning the fact that the water park’s attendance was steadily declining and asserting that the reason was swimming a stone’s throw away in green river waters.

I’ve had a paternal concern for Tennessee River gators all these years. The reptiles survived the freezing temperatures of normal southern winters, but could they make it through polar vortexes and near zero conditions? Spring is here and we will soon hear reports of whether the resident alligator population, which survived politics and Louisiana trappers, made it through another January.

■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.