ALLIGATOR ROPING & OTHER RODEO EVENTS
By Duane Preimsberger
There are only a few Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff’s who have roped an alligator, I’m one of them and I’ll fill you in on the details and some other animal oriented experiences I had while on patrol at Firestone Station and elsewhere in the Department. I guess the most unusual aspect is that all of them happened in an urban environment where cars are curb to curb and homes are practically on top of one another.
It was in the early 1960’s in the middle of the week and I was working Car 11 days out of Firestone Station in South Central Los Angeles. Shortly after noon the radio got pretty quiet and I was catching up on writing a couple of garage burglary reports. I was listing missing power mowers and shop tools that had been taken by crooks who were either going to fence the stuff to buy drugs or go into the lawn care business. My bet was down on the former.
My two frequency, Motorola radio came alive as the dispatcher announced a call for me. “11 handle, 10 Sam rolling from the station to assist, a 905S (stray animal), Alligator, walking on Nadeau east of Hooper.” At first I thought that someone with a lot of guts was playing a practical joke on the radio and if found out by the brass would suffer mightily for screwing around. Horseplay on a Sheriff’s dispatch frequency was not tolerated. Often, our Captain John Arruda would monitor radio traffic in his office at the station I asked for a repeat of the transmission and it came over the same way, so I 10-4’d the call and began driving a few blocks to my destination.
As I got within 100 yards I could see a small crowd of people moving cautiously, sometimes a few steps forward and then, quickly, a few steps back. I stopped my car, got out and walked through the onlookers to find a five-foot long Alligator or Crocodile; I didn’t know how to make a distinction, strolling nonchalantly westbound on Nadeau approaching Hooper.
“Whatcha gonna do, handcuff that croc’, Deputy?” a voice from the crowd asked.
At that moment I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do but I couldn’t let the onlookers know that, so I did the cop thing. “All right, everybody move back, get away from the critter I don’t want to have to shoot it if it attacks one of you.” Talking about gunplay almost always gets people out of the way and today it worked, people scrambled for the other side of the street and left me alone to handle the beast.
The thing just sort of lumbered along making weird hissing sounds and periodically darting out its tongue from between its jaws.
My formal training in Alligator handling was woefully inadequate, in all of the years I’d been on the Department the subject of taking large reptiles into custody had never been the subject of a briefing by any of my supervisors. To the best of my knowledge the topic was not covered in the patrol manual. So I did what any self-respecting Deputy would do I improvised based on what little Alligator information I had from reading an old National Geographic Society magazine sometime in the foggy past while in the waiting room at the dentist office. As I recalled their jaws were the weakest when in the closed position so if I could keep them closed I’d have a fairly safe creature to deal with.
I visually scouted the immediate neighborhood and identified a backyard clothesline with two 30-foot strands of plastic coated line presently unencumbered by drying clothes. I cut them down with my Buck knife and made a wide noose. Taking a deep breath and approaching the ‘gator from behind I lassoed its snout and jaws, drawing the noose as tight as I could. This made the critter more than just a little grumpy and I soon found out that the tail end of a grumpy ‘gator can whack the hell out of you ankles and calves. I kept at it though and before long I had thirty feet of clothesline wrapped around the jaws. Then I wrapped the other thirty feet around it’s back legs and tail and presto, a safe to handle alligator lay on the street as Sergeant Norm Early arrived to inspect my work and the onlookers gave me a round of applause for my street rodeo performance.
I advised my station via radio that I had the Alligator in custody and request that Animal Control guys come and pick it up. A few minutes later the dispatcher advised me that they had a two hour estimated time of arrival and that the Watch Commander had advised that under no circumstances was I to bring the ‘gator to the station. I could either standby and wait or go directly to the pound with the creature in my car. I selected the latter option and put the ‘gator in the car trunk. When I got to the pound I found to my amazement that they knew how to deal with Alligators. They even gave me back the clothesline and later I restrung it, none the worse for wear.
Later that day I learned that a very upset man had come to the station inquiring about the whereabouts of Al, his pet ‘gator. Al had been living in a backyard where he snoozed in a small den underneath the house. Nearby was a little tropical garden and in the midst of it, Al had tepid, muddy pond in which to frolic. That day, someone had left the gate open and Al had taken the opportunity to go for a stroll.
Even ordinary assignments can change to exotic in an eye blink. Landlord- tenant disputes are a pretty commonplace call for uniformed Deputies to handle and when I was dispatched to handle one of them in the East Compton area I was more than a little surprised to find that this was one for the books. The landlord was in his car parked in front of the home he’d rented about a month ago to a seemingly nice, reputable, single man with no dependents. The landlord was there to pick up the rent and to make sure everything was O.K. with his property. The tenant wasn’t at home so the landlord had started to make an exterior inspection of the property and had entered a latched gate on the east side of the home, he’d walked into the backyard and that’s when he heard the low growl.
He told me it was a black-maned African Lion that appeared to have been chained to a large Walnut tree in the center of the backyard.
I wasn’t certain about the condition and veracity of this guy so I got down wind and didn’t smell alcohol on his breath, he seemed to be nervous but rational so I told him to stay put while I took a look. He was right, there was a lion in the back yard. It was wearing big leather and metal collar attached to some very heavy-duty stainless steel chain that was wrapped and double-padlocked to a tree. The lion looked pretty old and appeared to have a lot of teeth missing but I’d decided not to give it a full-blown dental check.
As I walked back to the street, I looked inside the house and in various rooms were more creatures an Ocelot and a Cheetah and a very young bear. The garage held another surprise. When I pulled open the overhead door I was confronted with a homemade chicken wire enclosure that contained a half dozen dead plucked chickens and a very pregnant Cougar. I shut the door very quickly. None of the creatures were house broken and what they had done to the interior of the house was simply catastrophic. Additionally, big cats like to scratch and they are quite capable of shredding wallboard.
The landlord was not a happy guy and was more than pleased when the animal control folks armed with tranquilizer equipment and cages on trailers showed up to take custody of the menagerie.
The owner of the critters had been an animal trainer for a small circus. He’d had walked out with his herd after unsuccessfully negotiating for a larger salary. He was simply “storing” the animals pending another job.
Not all of the critters I came in contact with were so exotic. Late one evening my partner, Denny Carroll and I were sent to a stray snake call. Upon our arrival we were met by a very intoxicated, middle-aged women who was terrified by the huge green snake that had taken up residence on the steps leading from her back porch.
Denny and I steeled ourselves for a confrontation with this Python-like beast before we jerked open the back door. It was difficult not to laugh when we saw a medium-sized garden toad contentedly seated at the end of a green garden hose just outside the door. I stuffed the toad in my jacket pocket and Denny rolled up the hose thus ending that particular snake saga.
The two of us decided not to waste a perfectly good toad so we carried him around for the remainder of the shift including our last stop at Dominguez Valley Hospital where we picked up some paperwork. While we were there we told the emergency room nurses our snake saga and they giggled at it so we decided it would be O.K. to show them our toad. They giggled some more and one of them suggested that we turn it purple by painting it with a harmless substance use to stain slide cultures in the hospital’s lab. It worked quite well and soon we had a really strange colored toad. However, the nurses weren’t through with ideas for changing its appearance. Another nurse retrieved some cotton balls and some safe sticky glue like material and she gave our toad a scraggly white mane that went down the middle of his back. Now it looked more like something from a science fiction movie than a toad and we happily left with it and went to the station to check out and go off duty.
I planned on installing the toad in my backyard where I was certain it could find plenty to eat and drink and keep busy doing toad things with the other toads that lived in the shrubbery around my house. However, before leaving for the evening Denny and I decided to have a little more fun with our toad and the early morning secretary, Yvonne, an attractive, good-natured black lady who lived close to the Sheriff’s Station. In those days, intra-departmental communications were transmitted via teletype on machines resembling large manual typewriters. A plastic lid covered the key arms and we thought that putting the toad under that cover would be a clever thing to do. When Yvonne began typing the toad would dance around inside and give Yvonne a little harmless surprise.
Neither Denny nor I had any idea that Yvonne was terrified of purplish, green, fuzz covered, hopping creatures so when we heard her screams we ran to see what was up. The wheeled chair near the teletype machine had been turned over and papers were strewn everywhere. Yvonne standing atop a desk at the far end of the room, trembling, still yelling incoherently about the ugly, deformed beast that had tried to attack her. It seemed indeed that our prank had gone awry. Yvonne finally climbed down and then took the rest of the shift off, going home to recover. Denny and I were threatened with a fate worse than death should we ever again pull a stunt like that.
The Watch Commander and our Sergeant were not impressed with our attempt at humor. After getting our butts chewed thoroughly we slunk out of the station and got to our cars before we started chuckling again.
Several years later I was transferred to the Sheriff’s Academy as a drill instructor sergeant responsible for training new recruits. I was able to put the knowledge and experience I’d gained on patrol at Firestone Station to use as we built new Deputy Sheriff’s. The training process followed a quasi-military boot camp model with strict protocols, military formations, physical training, weapons and classroom instruction and uniform inspections. The training program concluded each Friday with an afternoon formal inspection; an hour-long episode in which each member of the class was subjected to intense scrutiny by his or her drill instructor. The trainees were asked outrageous questions to determine if they could respond without losing emotional control in a very stressful environment.
Lint on a tie, a scuffed shoe, a weapon with a speck of dust in the barrel could launch a drill instructor into a facade of frenzy causing the trainee to sweat and respond to a torrent of questions and criticisms. One Friday afternoon as I was inspecting one of my trainees I noticed that a fly had landed on his nose as he stood in front of me at rigid attention.
“Mister, do you realize that you have a fly on your nose?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“What do you want to do about it?”
“Sir, I’d like to swat it, sir!”
“Sir, swat the fly, sir!”
“YOU BIG DUMMY, THAT”S HERMAN THE FLY, THE OFFICAL LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENTS ACADEMY FLY, HE”S JUST BEEN TRANSFERRED HERE FROM FIRESTONE STATION AND YOU WANT TO KILL HIM!
“ Sir, well no sir, if that’s an official Sheriff’s fly I don’t wish to swat him.”
“OH, so now you’re not able to make a decision; first you want to grievously injure and probably kill Herman and now you don’t. Mister you’ve got all the makings of a soup sandwich!
“WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH HIM?”
“Sir, I don’t know sir, I’m asking the drill instructors assistance in dealing with the problem.”
“Well why don’t you call Herman to attention and march him of off your nose?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Fly, Attention! About face! Forward March! Left, right, left right.
“STOP IT RIGHT NOW!”
“Can you see the fly on your nose?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Well how many legs do you see through your little squinty crossed eyes?”
“Sir I believe the fly has six legs, sir!”
“Well then, march him properly.”
“Fly! Forward march, left, left, left, right, right, right!”
Herman eventually flew off. And so it went. The incident left my mind until months later when the class was about to graduate. The night before the graduation trainees get together with their families and friends at the Academy and enjoy a relaxed evening telling war stories about the trials and tribulations of Academy life and poking fun at the drill instructors.
I was called to the stage and presented with a small plaque with a vial containing a rather large, dead fly mounted upon it.
Next to it was a poem that read: “Sir, we give you Herman the Fly, with Thanks for Memories gone by, At your Direction, He’s Standing at Attention so you can Look him Straight in the Eye.”
On another Friday afternoon I performed a similar inquisition only this time I used a hypothetical circumstance than came from my Firestone Station background, years earlier.
“Mister, what would you do if while on patrol, you came upon an alligator walking down a residential street and moving toward a woman who was pushing a baby carriage?”
“Sir, I’d immediately shoot it to death!”
I played the responses like a yo-yo, the trainee simply wasn’t going to be able to satisfactorily solve the dilemma No matter how hard he tried or what he suggested things always got worse. It was then that I noticed muffled laughter coming from other trainees and that a number of drill instructors had gathered to listen to the exchange. Even I had to admit that it was pretty funny. I finally let the guy off the hook with a stern lecture about being prepared for the unexpected and ordered him to provide me with a research paper on the haunts and habitat of large reptiles in an urban environment.
When the family night for that class took place I was once again called to the stage to receive a special presentation from the class. The trainee who was functioning as the Master of Ceremonies began by retelling the class, their families and friends about the Alligator incident. As he spoke, there was a commotion at the rear of the auditorium and several trainees moved up the center aisle bearing a white sheet draped object about five feet long. When they got to the stage they undraped it and presented me with a four-foot long live Alligator in a wire cage. Supposedly, one of the trainees had family near a southern swamp and they were able to corral a small alligator that had been flown west on an Air National Guard training mission. I was now the proud (?) owner of my very own hissing, wild Alligator.
It’s not easy getting rid of an Alligator, believe it or not they aren’t very popular as pets. There are not a lot of people who are equipped to house one from a wild environment. The L.A. Zoo said, “no thanks, we have plenty”. The Alligator farm then in Buena Park, after hearing my story of acquisition, agreed to take it. After they got it they told me I had lifetime visitation rights and could come back anytime to see “My Alligator”. So far the need to visit has escaped me.