A day in an Alligator Plant
(Alert: some pictures in this article depict alligators being skinned.)
Recently, I was afforded a unique opportunity that I couldn’t resist: the chance to tour an alligator processing plant in full operation. Not only do I like to see how things work, but I also liked the opportunity to see the other side of the alligator business. Being from Louisiana, the sight of an alligator is nothing new to me, but never before had I seen where the transformation from carnivorous reptile to luxury products occurs.
Due to the recent upturn in the popularity of Louisiana being depicted via reality television, I thought that I would use this article as an opportunity to discuss a few things. Traveling, I often get a few random interjections, such as “Wait, don’t you all have alligators in your backyard?” “Doesn’t everyone talk with an accent?” heck I have even got ” ‘choot em ” a time or two, thanks to Troy from Swamp People. Well, I don’t want to get too side tracked here, but I’ll say a few things before getting back to the factory. First, we don’t all have alligators in our backyards, even though we might have at one time or another. So, I guess that means we do… Second, the accent tends to be most obvious among the Cajun people. Cajuns are the descendants of the French Acadians that migrated from Quebec. Third, the catch phrase ‘choot em’. We do support Troy, and other show participants. Troy has become a recent pop star in Louisiana. I was surprised to know that the show has been so popularized around the world. However, not everyone is an alligator hunter and we all aren’t Cajuns.
Back to the plant. Well as I was saying, I have seen many alligators in my life. I have even held a few in my time. They are a large part of our wildlife here in Louisiana, and they have become an influential factor in local cuisine as well as the local economy. Alligator meat is considered to be a delicacy in Louisiana. It can be found at many local restaurants, especially in the south-central and southeastern parts of the state. Their history runs deep in the area as they have been talked about in the books since the days when the Indians ruled the land.
As I walked into the building, I was greeted by the smell of processing alligator. I was warned about the smell of the factory before going. The smell was a faint rotten seafood smell mixed with another unfamiliar one. Overall, I did not find it to be too bad, but it definitely was not the most pleasant of smells. Inside the plant, I was surprised to see the different stages that an alligator passes through once it is brought in by local hunters and commercial farmers. When the workers are ready to process the alligators, they are taken from the refrigerated holding chamber which keeps the bodies from spoiling. The first step in the process requires that the skin be removed from the alligator. The skin of an alligator is extremely valuable in luxury markets. It can be used to make purses, wallets, boots, coats, and other leather goods. Because the most valuable parts of the skin are on top, the alligator must be cut open from the stomach. The stomach also happens to be the softer side of an alligator’s skin which helps ease the process. As this process is finished, the skin must be completely removed from the meat. After this, the next step begins. In the second step, the alligator skins and bodies are separated. The skins go to the next phase, which calls for a high-powered pressure washer to remove ligaments and tissues from the skin. At this time, the waste parts of the alligator are cut from the body and disposed of while the meat is frozen for further processing. The third step calls for the skin preservation through the use of salt-based preservatives. The goods are then sent on to other facilities for the next processes to begin.
One of the cool things about alligator skinning is that very little of the animal is wasted. The skin is used in its entirety. The edible meat is sent for processing. The head of the alligator is sold as a novelty item to tourists. I think they even make collectibles out of the gator’s feet.
Seeing this first hand was quite an experience. It is a simple process, but it is still interesting to see. Walking the factory was additionally an educational experience for me.
A Brief Bit on Alligator Hunting
The alligator hunting process in Louisiana is not a simple one. The people who get to hunt typically have longstanding family connections to land, or have acquired land by a spite of luck. There are some hunters who do not land, but they are usually in contractual agreements with landowners. Local hunters, such as the people depicted on Swamp People, are given a certain amount of tags each year and given a very specific area of the swamp to hunt. Not just anyone can get alligator hunting tags. You need to have a place to hunt and permission to do so. People who hunt the gators blitz the short hunting season to rack up as many creatures as they can. The goal is to fill the amount of tags that they have. If they do not, they run the risk of being given less tags the following year, which translates into less gators, less hunting, and ultimately less money. Thus, it is a rush to fill the limited tags each year.
Alligator hunters differ in style of hunting. As one can see on the show, hunters use a range of tactics from more primitive and basic methods to advanced and more modern ones. Alligator hunters can expect to earn $20-30 per foot, and they are required to kill any gator that they find on a hook. Therefore, regardless of whether an alligator is 2 feet long or 10 feet long, they have to keep it.
Gator hunting was suspended some years ago, due to population decline and over harvesting, but it is now in full operation. By one statistic that I heard a few years ago, there are about 1.5 million alligators living in the waters of Louisiana.
A few random facts for your general knowledge
- Louisiana used to be home to both Crocodiles and Alligators, but Crocodiles were hunted to extinction.
- Bayou and Coulée are two common Louisiana words used to describe streams or rivers. The word bayou typically refers to a larger river-like water base, where coulée is more like the stream behind your house.
- Alligators are more docile than their Crocodile counterparts. They usually are not aggressive with people unless provoked or nesting. It does not mean that they are not capable of doing so.
- Many parts of alligators are used locally for products such as meat or gator skin boots while alligator heads and feet can be found in gift shops across south Louisiana.
Special thanks to Ronnie O. for several of the pictures in this article.
Tell me what you think!
Did you learn anything new about alligators? Have you ever eaten gator?
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