081717 Environment: Gator comes ashore on Pawleys Island beach
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Lankford tapes the gator's jaws shut.

Environment: Gator comes ashore on Pawleys Island beach

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Even with its jaws open and tail thrashing, the gator was no match for the 49-year-old mother of four. This wasn’t Rachel Lankford’s first trip to the rodeo – or the beach.

The alligator first appeared in the surf off the south end of Pawleys Island last Thursday. It came ashore in the evening, but immediately drew a crowd, as gators do when they are out of their natural element. Though they live in the freshwater ponds on the Pawleys mainland, they aren’t saltwater creatures.

Had the gator crawled across the island’s narrow south end to Pawleys Creek, it’s likely that it would have made its way back to its normal habitat. “We gave him overnight to naturally return to his habitat, and he didn’t,” said Lankford, co-owner of Carolina Exterminators, and the person that Pawleys Island Police call to deal with nuisance alligators.

The gator was spotted just beyond the breakers off the island’s southern tip on Friday afternoon. The current carried it north past the popular public beach access. A group of kayakers pointed it out to the swimmers.

A man on a personal watercraft roared up from the south. He circled the gator a couple of times, pointing it out to people on the beach.

That was when Officer Tracie Milligan arrived. “He isn’t helping,” she said. “He’s only going to make it mad.”

In fact, what he did was drive the alligator under water so no one knew where it was for several long minutes. Milligan scanned with waves through binoculars.

The boater left. The alligator surfaced. It began to drift north again, with Milligan and a small crowd following.

Police Chief Mike Fanning arrived to help with the crowd. He assured the doubters that it was, in fact, an alligator in the ocean.

“Unfortunately, with a gator that size, the only thing you can do is call someone, and they’ll euthanize it,” Fanning said.

But first you have to catch it.

The gator drifted by the rock and concrete groins that trap sand along the Pawleys Island beachfront. It was far enough offshore not to get trapped itself.

It did begin to tire. A breaker rolled it toward shore. The gator cleared the surf for calmer water.

The crowd ebbed like the tide as it seemed less likely the gator would reach the beach. A few people stayed with the chase. Others watched briefly, considered the water safe, and returned to playing in the waves.

When the gator appeared ready to land, police called Lankford. She pulled up in her red pickup, accompanied by her youngest daughter, a grandchild and her tackle.

She waded into the ocean in her long black shirt and shorts, and a pink ball cap with an embroidered R.

The gator lolled beyond the breakers. “He was exhausted,” Lankford said. “His eyes were closed. I wasn’t even sure he was alive.”

She snagged it with one throw of a three-pronged hook even though the surf had swept her off her feet.

Lankford emerged on shore with her hat between her teeth and the gator on the end of a line. She handed the line to Fanning, but the hook came loose. “I was in between him and freedom,” Lankford said.

She had a smaller line with a loop at one end. She moved to lasso the gator’s head. It snapped. Lankford stepped back, then slipped the rope over the gator’s head.

“In that split second I was able to get the noose on him,” she said. After that, it was just a matter of time.

She asked for a volunteer to hold the line once the gator was out of the water. Frank Robinson, 12, of Columbia, stepped forward. He held the line. Milligan held him by the waist.

Lankford came up behind the gator with a roll of tape. She settled on its back and sealed its jaws shut. She trussed it up with cable ties and three men carried it off the beach to her truck.

“He was an aggressive gator,” she said. “He gave us quite a show.”

It’s last act was to swat Milligan in the face with its tail after it was placed in the truck. “I thought he broke a tooth,” Milligan said.

It measured 7 feet, 9 inches. Many in the crowd hoped the alligator would return to the wild. State law doesn’t allow that. “I like to take everything live,” Lankford said. “I don’t want to kill it in front of anybody.”

But the gator was killed to avoid the risk that human contact would make it a future threat. “We live in their environment,” Lankford said. She left the beach. The beachgoers returned to the water.

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