Investigative journalist Rebecca Renner’s breathtaking Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades brims with exhilarating tales of the denizens—both human and animal—that lurk in the saw grass, skunk cabbage and mangrove roots of the rapidly vanishing Everglades. The fast-paced narrative is imbued with the atmosphere of tension that shapes any good mystery story—but unlike other mysteries, Gator Country is shaped by moral ambiguities among antagonists and protagonists. With deep affection for a beloved place, Renner, who grew up in the Everglades, sketches a vivid portrait of the scraggly splendor of the land and its tenacious hold on life in a world that often fails to see its beauty.
At the heart of Renner’s book lies Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Jeff Babauta’s struggle to balance his sympathy for wily lifetime poachers with his understanding that alligators are a key species in the conservation of a fragile ecosystem. Near retirement, he takes on one last mission, going undercover to catch alligator poachers who are stealing gator eggs from nests and selling them, despite being torn about this charge.
Who is the hero, and who is the villain? It depends on who you ask. Before the Everglades became a national park, “poaching” was simply “hunting,” and it was largely done for sustenance. As Renner points out, tourism, the rapid encroachment of urbanization, farming, the disruption of natural fire cycles and land-hungry builders who “snatched the land and made hunters into poachers” have endangered the Everglades far more than poachers.
Renner weaves Babauta’s story with her own; she grew up in south Florida, and as she puzzles through her reporting, she reflects earnestly on her relationship with the swamp. Her mission, she writes, was “to go to the Everglades and listen.” In doing so, she captures the inhabitants of the region—human, animal and ecological—in all their frailty and splendor.
At the end of this tangled environmental morality tale (no spoilers—we learn this up front), the FWC takes down the ring of poachers. For Renner, though, the moral of the story is that “To be at odds with nature is to be at odds with ourselves . . . Our centuries of war with the swamp have shown that when we attack nature, nature will fight back, and both humans and nature will lose.”